Super/Heroes

Overview

Why are audiences so fascinated with heroes? What makes the idea of heroes so necessary in society? The superhero has reached a level of popularity never witnessed before, making a successful and prolific transfer from the comic book and graphic novel into the multi-million dollar blockbuster film. A number of films and their sequels, including Spider Man, Batman, Batman Begins, Sin City, and X-Men represent only a handful of examples that have attained unprecedented box-office ...
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Overview

Why are audiences so fascinated with heroes? What makes the idea of heroes so necessary in society? The superhero has reached a level of popularity never witnessed before, making a successful and prolific transfer from the comic book and graphic novel into the multi-million dollar blockbuster film. A number of films and their sequels, including Spider Man, Batman, Batman Begins, Sin City, and X-Men represent only a handful of examples that have attained unprecedented box-office success or cult status in recent years.

This collection of essays explores contemporary superhero narratives, including comic books and films, in a wider mythic context. This is the first study to evaluate the social function of the super/hero in contemporary, ancient and multiple media contexts, evaluating its continuities, transformations and cultural significance. The exploration of issues and hero types across time, cultures and media will open up the possibilities of hero studies across disciplines. This collection will be, in many respects, a prototype that will reveal the limitless possibilities inherent in truly inter-disciplinary studies in this area.

"This collection fills an enormous gap in the study of popular culture and provides exactly what has been missing for too long-a comparative heroism study, driven by close-grain analyses of a wide range of heroes from different national cultures (comic book avengers, professional wrestlers, rock stars, anime heroines, Jesus) all animated by theoretical frameworks that are both rigorous and lucidly articulated. The end result is a collection of fascinating case studies which probe the popular appeal of the super/hero with an unprecedented degree of insight."

-Jim Collins, Professor of Film, Television, and Theatre, University of Notre Dame.

"Holy smoke! These essays offer a varied and engaging consideration of hero and superhero culture in a variety of manifestations-from Greek heroes and truly 'super men', to anime characters, Mexican luchadors and gangsta

rappers. Reaching backwards with mythic, biblical and Jungian approaches to the heroic journey of mutation and transformation, and forward into the role that diverse media platforms and generic hybridity play in the evolution of superhero universes, this timely collection challenges what

it means to be a Super/hero."

-Roberta Pearson, Professor and Director of the Institute of Film and Television Studies at the University of Nottingham, and co-editor of The

Many Lives of the Batman.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780977790845
  • Publisher: New Academia Publishing
  • Publication date: 2/15/2007
  • Pages: 428
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.95 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Super/Heroes

From Hercules to Superman

New Academia Publishing

Copyright © 2007 Wendy Haslem, Angela Ndalianis, Chris Mackie
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-9777908-4-5

Contents

List of Illustrations...............................................................................................................................................viii Do We Need Another Hero? Angela Ndalianis..........................................................................................................................1 Being a Super/Hero: Myth and Meaning................................................................................................................................11 1. "True-Lies" Superhero: Do We Really Want Our Icons to Come to Life? Louise Krasniewicz..........................................................................12 2. The Definition of the Superhero Peter Coogan....................................................................................................................21 3. Superheroes, "Moral Economy," and the "Iron Cage": Morality, Alienation and the Super-Individual Robert M. Peaslee..............................................37 4. El Santo: Wrestler, Superhero and Saint Gabrielle Murray........................................................................................................51 5. Homer and Rap: Epic Iconographies Erin O'Connell................................................................................................................65 Into the Labyrinth: Dark Journeys...................................................................................................................................81 6. Men of Darkness C.J. Mackie.....................................................................................................................................83 7. "Restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach its end": Nihilism, Reconstruction and the Hero's Journey Raymond Younis.....................97 8. My Own Private Apocalypse: Shinji Ikari in Hideaki Anno's Neon Genesis Evangelion as Schreberian Paranoid Superhero Paul M. Malone..............................111 9. Shamans vs (Super)heroes Lucy Wright............................................................................................................................127 10. Dreaming Superman: Exploring the Action of the Superhero(ine) in Dreams, Myth, and Culture Jamie Egolf.........................................................139 We Can Be Heroes: Bodies That Hammer................................................................................................................................153 11. The Superhero Versus the Troubled Teen: Parenting Connor, and the Fragility of 'Family' in Angel Gwyn Symonds..................................................155 12. Gibson's The Passion: The Superheroic Body of Jesus Peter Horsfield............................................................................................167 13. "Perception Is Reality": The Rise and Fall of Professional Wrestlers Wendy Haslem..............................................................................181 14. "No Apologies, No Regrets": Making the Margins Heroic on Queer as Folk Joanna Di Mattia........................................................................197 15. Gods Amongst Us/Gods Within: The Black Metal Aesthetic Aleks Michalewicz.......................................................................................211 Collisions: Gods and Supermen.......................................................................................................................................223 16. Harry Potter and Oedipus: Marked Men with Strong Characters Babette Pütz.......................................................................................225 17. Hercules Psychotherapist Ruby Blondell.........................................................................................................................239 18. Someone to Watch over Me: The Guardian Angel as Superhero in Seicento Rome Lisa Beaven.........................................................................251 19. Smack-Head Hasan: Why are all Turkic Superheroes Intemperate, Treacherous, or Stupid? Claire Norton............................................................263 20. Conqueror of Flood, Wielder of Fire: Noah the Hebrew Superhero Estelle Strazdins...............................................................................275 Media Convergence and Selling Hero Culture..........................................................................................................................289 21. RIPPED OFF! Cross-Media Convergence and 'The Hulk' Gareth Schott & Andrew Burn.................................................................................291 22. Transforming Superheroics through Female Music Style Kim Toffoletti............................................................................................307 23. Check the Use-By Date: Shelving an Icon as Superheroes Become Super-brands in Advertising to the Junior Generation Holly Stokes................................321 24. I Outwit Your Outwit: HeroClix, Fans, and the Politics of the Collectible Superhero Tabletop Combat Game Michael G. Robinson...................................335 25. Girl Power: The Female Cyborg in Japanese Anime Craig Norris...................................................................................................347 Contributors........................................................................................................................................................363 Notes...............................................................................................................................................................369 Index...............................................................................................................................................................413

Chapter One

The Definition of the Superhero

Peter Coogan

Superhero (soo'per hîr'o) n., pl. -roes. A heroic character with a selfless, pro-social mission; with superpowers-extraordinary abilities, highly developed physical, mental, or mystical skills, or advanced technology; who has a superhero identity embodied in a codename and iconic costume, which typically express his biography or character, powers, or origin (transformation from ordinary person to superhero); and is generically distinct, i.e. can be distinguished from characters of related genres (fantasy, science fiction, detective, etc.) by a preponderance of generic conventions. Often superheroes have dual identities, the ordinary one of which is usually a closely guarded secret. -superheroic, adj. Also super hero, super-hero.

Genre

Just what is a superhero? On the face of it, it seems pretty obvious. Superman is a superhero; Captain Marvel is a superhero; Spider-Man is a superhero. On the other hand, it also seems pretty obvious which characters are not superheroes. The Virginian is a cowboy, not a superhero. Sherlock Holmes is a detective, not a superhero. Rico "Little Caesar" Bandello is a gangster, not a superhero. But the question that arises is, how do we know which of these characters are superheroes and which are not? The answer is genre. Each of these characters belongs to a genre and is identified with it. But unlike the western, the detective, and the gangster genres, the superhero genre is not well defined. Typically, discussions of the superhero fall into two categories-those that take the superhero genre for granted and discuss the obvious examples, such as those noted above; and those that ignore the genre and declare any protagonist with extraordinary abilities as a superhero, including characters such as Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and Gilgamesh. But an understanding of the superhero genre is crucial to the definition of the superhero because the definition arises from the genre.

A genre is a privileged story form, "part of a limited number of story forms that have been refined into formulas because of their unique social and/or aesthetic qualities" (Schatz 1981, 16). As such, it is a coherent, value-laden narrative system that has emerged through a process of commercial selection and repetition into "a familiar, meaningful system that can be named as such" (Schatz 1981, 16). This definition provides three tests to establish the existence of the superhero genre. Once the genre has been shown to exist as an independent genre, the elements that are taken for granted in some discussions and ignored in others can be elucidated and the definition posited above explained. The three tests are the ideas of privilege, refinement, and naming.

Privilege is demonstrated through the imitation and repetition of a story formula. Richard Slotkin writes, "The primary audience for any cultural production in modern society consists of those who do the same work [creating cultural products], or who participate in its production, reproduction, marketing, or distribution" (Slotkin 1985, 30-31). This primacy is grounded in the fact that only if culture workers see a character, novel, television show, film, or comic book as worth imitating because of potential sales will they create similar offerings for consumers to accept or reject. Only certain popular story patterns combine "archetypal story forms in terms of culturally specific materials" in such a way as to produce the cycle of production, popularity, and reproduction that might be called "commercial natural selection" which operates between producers and consumers (Cawelti 1976, 6).

Imitation and repetition of the superhero genre started quickly as Superman's popularity led to the creation of other superheroes. Both Wonder Man and Batman were created at the instigation of editors who hoped to capitalize on the success of Superman. Wonder Man-a blond, red-costumed superhero with powers duplicating those of Superman-had his first and last appearance in Wonder Comics #1 (May 1939). Wonder Man's creation was catalyzed by Victor Fox, who was contracted with the Will Eisner-Jerry Iger shop to produce a knockoff, saying, "I want another Superman" (qtd. in Benton 1992, 22). At almost the exact same time, the editors at DC Comics wanted to capitalize on the success of Superman on their own. Vincent Sullivan, referring to Superman, asked artist Bob Kane, "Do you think you could come up with another superhero?" (qtd. in Murray 1998, 30). Kane and his friend and writer Bill Finger delivered up Batman, who debuted in Detective Comics #27 (May 1939). Both Wonder Man and Batman imitated and repeated certain conventions present in Superman-the costume, the codename, the vigilante stance, the secret identity. Wonder Man directly imitated Superman's superpowers, but Batman moved the genre forward by substituting detective ability, fighting skill, and human muscular abilities for Superman's science-fictional superpowers.

The test for refinement into formula can most easily be demonstrated by successful parody. Successful parody is a sign that the conventions and straightforward message of a genre have saturated the audience (Schatz 1981, 39). Unsuccessful parody can indicate that the audience is not yet familiar enough with the genre to appreciate the subversion of its conventions. Thus parody-successful parody-clearly indicates that a set of conventions have been refined into a formula and that a genre has been fully established in the minds of the producers and consumers, who perceive the humor of the parody within the context of the genre, not merely as a humorous text.

The first superhero parody came in All-American Comics #20 (November 1940) with the Red Tornado's appearance in Sheldon Mayer's boy-cartoonist strip, "Scribbly." Mayer was responsible for editing the All-American Group of comics, which featured the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and the other members of the Justice Society, so he clearly knew the superhero genre well. The first two pages of "Scribbly" from All-American #20 feature many of the conventions of the superhero genre, but played for laughs. The limited authorities-represented by Police Chief Gilhooley-can do nothing when Tubbs Torpino's gang kidnaps Ma Hunkle's daughter Sisty and her playmate Dinky. The costume convention is foregrounded when Ma Hunkle's neighbor Scribbly claims, "I betcha if th' Green Lantern wus on th' job we'd have th' kids back in a minute!" and then explains that Green Lantern is "a guy who just waits for somethin' like this to happen, an' then he puts on his mysterious costume so nobody'd recognize him, an' ..." "An Zingo! He comes to th' rescue," finishes Ma Hunkle's son (Mayer 1981, 42). Ma Hunkel focuses on the idea of a costume, mentioning it in the next two panels before disappearing "in a trance" (Mayer 1981, 42). She appears in the final panel of the story as the Red Tornado, dressed in red-flannel long underwear and a helmet made from a stockpot. The ensuing adventures make fun of every element of the superhero genre, particularly the identity convention. In "his" secret identity the Red Tornado is Mrs. Hunkel, a housewife, and "he" is frequently referred to as the Red Tomato. The villains this superhero takes on include a shoplifter, a neighborhood bully, storekeepers who overcharge their customers, and a newspaper editor who will not give Scribbly a raise for his work as a cartoonist, hardly threats to world peace. The Red Tornado works as a parody of the superhero generally, not as a specific parody of Superman and not as a parody of pulp mystery men. The Red Tornado therefore suggests producers and consumers mutually understood the conventions of the genre by 1940.

Using the naming test, we can determine roughly when the superhero genre was recognized as a genre. Abner Sundell, a Golden Age writer and editor at MLJ and Fox Publications, wrote a guide to selling superhero scripts called "Crash the Comics" that appeared in The Writer's 1942 Yearbook. In it he discusses the hero, how he should be treated, how to create good villains, how to plot a story, and how to submit scripts. Tellingly, Sundell never defines the term superhero, and he uses it throughout the article without explanation or qualification; moreover, all the heroes he discusses are clearly superheroes-Batman, Captain America, the Flag, Samson, Magno and Davey, the Wizard, and Roy the Superboy, etc. So the genre's name, as understood and used by its producers, can be dated to 1942.1 But Sundell's casual use of superhero indicates that the public understood what the term meant because his audience was not comics creators, but potential comics creators-people who might be interested in selling their work to comics publishers. Sundell must have been certain that his audience would understand what superhero meant.

Mission, Powers, Identity

Judge Learned Hand ruled in favor of DC Comics in the lawsuit they brought against Victor Fox for the publication of Wonder Comics. This ruling shows that the definitional characteristics of mission, powers, and identity are central to the superhero genre because they are central to Hand's determination that Wonder Man copied Superman.

Hand refers to both Superman and Wonder Man as "champion[s] of the oppressed" who combat "evil and injustice" (Detective v. Bruns 1940), a summation of the superhero's mission. The superhero's mission is pro-social and selfless, which means that his fight against evil must fit in with the existing, professed mores of society and must not be intended to benefit or further himself. The mission convention is essential to the superhero genre because someone who does not act selflessly to aid others in times of need is not heroic. Without this mission, a superhero would be merely an extraordinarily helpful individual in a crisis (like Hugo Hercules, the eponymous super strong hero of J. Kroener's 1904-1905 comic strip, who might set a train back on the tracks or lift an elephant so that a lady could pick up her handkerchief). He could be someone who gains personally from his powers (like Hugo Danner, the super powered protagonist of Philip Wylie's 1930 novel Gladiator, who uses his super strength to earn a living as a circus strongman); or a super villain (if he pursued his interests at the legal, economic, or moral expense of others, like Dr. Hugo Strange, an early foe of Batman).

But the mission convention is not unique to the genre. Superman's mission is to be a "champion of the oppressed ... sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need" i.e. to "benefit mankind"(Siegel 1997, 1). This mission is not greatly different from that of the pulp mystery man Doc Savage, whose "purpose was to go here and there, from one end of the world to another, looking for excitement and adventure, striving to help those who needed help, punishing those who deserved it" (Robeson 1964, 4). Nor does Superman's mission differ materially from the missions of adventure heroes of the dime novels, pulps, film serials, or radio programs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The superhero's mission does distinguish him from certain hero types, though. Many western and science fiction heroes do not have the generalized mission of the superhero or pulp hero because they are not seeking to do good for the sake of doing good. Instead, many of these heroes reluctantly get drawn into defending a community. Superheroes actively seek to protect their communities by preventing harm to all people and by seeking to right wrongs committed by criminals and other villains.

Superpowers are one of the most identifiable elements of the superhero genre. Hand identifies Superman and Wonder Man as having "miraculous strength and speed" and being "wholly impervious" to harm (Detective v. Bruns, 1940). He cites instances when each crushes a gun in his hands, rips open steel doors, stops bullets, and leaps over the buildings of modern cities. He notes that each is designated the "strongest man in the world". These abilities are the heroes' powers-or superpowers, to emphasize the exaggeration inherent in the superhero genre-and they are the first area of real difference between Superman and his pulp and science fiction predecessors. Each of Superman's powers amplifies the abilities of the science-fiction supermen who came before him. Hugo Danner in The Gladiator was fairly bullet proof and possessed super-strength and super-speed. In the first issue of Action Comics, Superman displays super-strength, super-speed, super-leaping, and invulnerability at only slightly greater levels than Danner does. Over time, though, Superman's powers went far beyond merely exaggerating the strength, speed, and toughness of ordinary human beings as science-fiction supermen had done.

The identity element comprises the codename and the costume, with the secret identity being a customary counterpart to the codename. In his ruling Hand identifies the two elements that make up the identity convention of the superhero when he notes that both Action Comics and Wonder Comics portray characters with heroic codenames-Superman and Wonder Man-who conceal "skintight acrobatic costume[s]" beneath "ordinary clothing" (Detective v. Bruns, 1940).

The identity convention most clearly marks the superhero as different from his predecessors. Characters like the Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro established the dual identity convention that was to become the hallmark of the superhero genre. However, the code names of these characters do not firmly externalize either their alter ego's inner character or biography. The Scarlet Pimpernel does not resemble the little roadside flower whose name he takes, except perhaps in remaining unnoticed in his Percy Blakeney identity; Zorro does not resemble the fox whose Spanish name he has taken, except perhaps in his ability to escape his pursuers. These minimal connections between heroic codename and character are not foregrounded in the hero's adventures, but those adventures did serve as models for the creators of superheroes in their portrayals of their heroes' foppish alter egos.

The connection of name to inner character or biography came with pulp mystery men like the Shadow and Doc Savage. The Shadow is a shadowy presence behind events, not directly seen by his enemies or even his agents; thus his name expresses his character. Doc Savage's name combines the twin thrusts of childhood tutelage by scientists-the skill and rationality of a doctor and the strength and fighting ability of a wild savage, thus embodying his biography. The heroic identities of Superman and Batman operate in this fashion. Superman is a super man and represents the best humanity can hope to achieve; his codename expresses his inner character. The Batman identity was inspired by Bruce Wayne's encounter with a bat while he was seeking a disguise able to strike terror into the hearts of criminals; his codename embodies his biography.

The difference between Superman and earlier figures such as the Shadow or Doc Savage lies in the element of identity central to the superhero, the costume. Although Superman was not the first costumed hero, his costume marks a clear and striking departure from those of the pulp heroes. A pulp hero's costume does not emblematize the character's identity. The slouch hat, black cloak, and red scarf of the Shadow or the mask and fangs of the Spider disguise their faces but do not proclaim their identities. Superman's costume does, particularly through his "S" chevron. Similarly, Batman's costume proclaims him a bat man, just as Spider-Man's webbed costume proclaims him a spider man. These costumes are iconic representations of the superhero's identity.

The iconicity of the superhero costume follows Scott McCloud's theory of "amplification through simplification" (McCloud 1993, 30). In Understanding Comics, McCloud argues that pictures vary in their levels of abstraction, from completely realistic photographs to nearly abstract cartoons. Moving from realism to abstraction in pictures is a process of simplification, "focusing on specific details" and "stripping down an image to its essential 'meaning'" (McCloud 1993, 30). This stripping down amplifies meaning by focusing attention on the idea represented by the picture. McCloud explains, "By de-emphasizing the appearance of the physical world in favor of the idea of form, the cartoon places itself in the world of concepts" (McCloud 1993, 41). The superhero costume removes the specific details of a character's ordinary appearance, leaving only a simplified idea that is represented in the colors and design of the costume.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Super/Heroes Copyright © 2007 by Wendy Haslem, Angela Ndalianis, Chris Mackie . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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