The Superhero Genre Part 1: Superhero is a Genre Now?
Two years ago when I was putting the first Descendants book online (Which, by the way you should buy now, because between now and the end November, it’s going to be replaced in preparation for the second book and The Descendants: The Complete Volume 1, so this is your last chance to see those particular editing mistake and amateurish forward material), I had some difficulty categorizing it.
You see, as it happens, Amazon has a ‘Superhero’ category, but it exists only as a sub-category beneath Graphic Novels. This means that not only does The Descendants have to go there if I want to be part of that category, but so do the works of established authors like Micheal Stackpole, whose retired superhero yarn, In Hero Years… I’d Be Dead, is also in the same boat, sharing the same space as actual superhero graphic novels like Superman: Red Son, or Batman: Year One (I flog Marvel a lot on this blog, so there’s some DC titles. Commence complaining now, indie fans, but I probably won’t be flogging those until there’s a Dynamo 5 trade paper… oh.)
I feel this is a massive disservice to me, as it puts people like me, who write novels like this specifically because I couldn’t draw if someone put a gun to my head, in direct competition against an art-heavy medium in a storefront that is based entirely on visuals (go over to Amazon and look at how the books are linked to each other: it’s all cover are and a title). Not only that, but people looking for graphic novels will find my all-text work and dismiss it because it’s in the wrong place.
As I’m something of a doormat shaped like a man, I just kind of put it out of my mind until I was begging for ideas for blog topics in my writer’s group and a friend suggested talking about the Superhero genre as it exists outside of graphic novels and movies and it got me thinking about it, and realizing that ‘Superhero’ as a genre outside of comics is still very young; a tiny planetoid still floating out in space, its crust just starting to cool and shape its landscape.
And what better time and place for some jackass on the internet to come along and talk about it like he knows something? We’ll see in the first part of our gripping series.
Where the Genre Stands
Genres are slippery little buggers. The Dresden Files and Codex Alera (both by the same author, Jim Butcher) are both somehow ‘Fantasy’ despite the only common trait being ‘magic is a thing’. Sure, they’re different sub-genres (Urban Fantasy vs Heroic Fantasy), but still, there’s a big, huge swath the word ‘fantasy’ is meant to cover and nowadays, you’ll hear a lot of people considering Fantasy itself to be part of a super-genre called Speculative Fiction, along with it’s slightly more scholarly brother, Science Fiction.
Which puts us in a bind when it comes to the Superhero genre. Doctor Stephen Strange, (Is he still former?) Sorcerer Supreme who rocks the Eye of Agamotto and fights inter-dimensional overlords is a superhero. So is Bruce ‘The Goddamn Batman’ Wayne, who uses superior kung fu, slightly (depending on the continuity) advanced gadgets, and a psychotic compulsion to prepare for damn near everything that would made the boy scouts howl in jealous rage to fight guys in clown make-up and a dude with severe acid burns. But then again, so is Tony ‘Robert Downey Jr’ Stark, who uses flat out super-science to fight a man who may well have been designed as a hate crime against Asians and is armed with power rings he stole from an alien dragon turned model for stylish gigantic men’s briefs.
Well… that’s not right. I mean those are clearly Fantasy, Crime Fiction, and Science Fiction respectively, right? But they’re all still clearly superheroes. No one is going to argue with you (outside of the internet, because there are rules here enforcing that) if you say they’re superheroes. Not only that, but free of any inter-company fighting, these guys can hang out together and punch giant space dinosaurs and no one would bat an eye.
And that is where we begin. While clearly part of speculative fiction, Superhero stories are free to mix and match elements from the big two in the same without really having to submit to the general limitations of the same. Instead it has its own limitations, tropes and rules, like any other genre does. And to explore those, allow me to give you another set of three characters:
Harry Dresden of the aforementioned Dresden Files, rocks a magical shielding bracelet and fights extra-dimensional overlords. Indiana Jones uses his wits, mad whipping skills, and the ability to shoot dudes with guns to fight Nazis and… you know what? Only the Nazi’s matter. Agatha Heterodyne uses literal super-science to… well she uses it for everything from making coffee to holding her tools, but along the way she kicks some bad guy booty too.
Any reason to use this video is the perfect reason.
But none of them are considered superheroes. No one would think of it. A lot of people would argue with you if you mentioned it. Those don’t fit. They are clearly and comfortably situated in Urban Fantasy, Adventure, and Steamp—I mean Gaslamp Fantasy.
(A note: I’m not biting on the Foglios for choosing to effectively create their on genre for Girl Genius. I actually applaud them for it, because there really are some important distinctions. That, plus, I’ve co-opted Dungeon Punk for Rune Breaker [Book 1: A Girl and Her Monster on sale now! Book 2: Lighter Days, Darker Nights on sale in December!])
So what makes something part of the Superhero Genre? Well, like Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror (I don’t discuss Horror much because I’m not a fan. I respect the people who work int it, I’m just one of those people who do not like being scared or disturbed.), this is subject to change over time.
At the moment though, keeping in mind that I’m just a writer, not a literary scholar or critic, I would say some of those elements would include…
Born in Four Colors
And lo, did the Penny Dreadful beget Pulp Fiction. And Pulp Fiction did go forth and multiply. And in its multitude of children were Noir, and Pulp Adventure, and Pulp Horror, and True Crime Stories, and The Super Hero. And lo did these children go forth and spread out into the Radio Serial, and the advertisers did grin and set them upon the newsstands, adorned in print in four colors so as to sell X-ray glasses, and fruit pies, and fruit bats and anchovies, and orangutans and—
Skip a bit, Brother!
Sorry, I got into a serious Python thing there.
Anyway, while humanity has always had a soft spot for super-powered pillars of awesome and has told stories of them from Greece and Heracles and his labors, to Ireland and Cuchulainn cutting mountains in half, to Anansi in what is now Ghana (Anansi’s original origin story was that he was a man transformed into a spider. Yes, he was the original Spider-Man), superheroes as we know them were spawned from four color comic books.
Back in the day, comics were the disposable reading of choice for everybody, and superheroes were just an unusual sideshow that showed up in action, fantasy, sci-fi, crime and war comics where writers sought to spice things up by introducing characters who were literally super-human. The Big, Blue Boyscout himself, Superman first appeared in action stories as a strongman who rocked the Roosevelt style progressive stance by replacing ‘sound national policies’ with methods easier t understand by the two poor, depression era kids who created him: punching the people responsible for the ills of the world in the face, just like everyone t the time wished they could do.
As time went on and the distinct lack of exciting war killed War comics, social and political upheaval dropped the bottom out of Romance stories, and the Comics Code murdered the hell out of True Crime and Horror books, Superhero stories inherited the throne be default. Pulp adventure held on, but with their greatest tools: gore, sex and racism off the table, they couldn’t work the magic they once did.
And because people across all cultures and walks of life are pretty stupid, it came to pass that comics were superheroes and superheroes were comics. QED. Ignore, the still thriving Funny Books, like Disney and Archie, and the pulp survivors like Conan; those were outliers.
And that’s how it’s been for a long time. People just accepted that comic books were ‘those things with superheroes in’, and that superheroes couldn’t exist out of their sequential art environments. It’s telling that a genre nearing eighty years old still points almost entirely to graphic novels as its only ‘major works’ and that most people don’t even realize that wildly popular works like Men in Black started as a comic book. I’ve noticed that you really have to squint in the credits o discover hat one f my favorite recent movies, RED, was also born in the comics. Hey, did you know GI Joe and Transformers, which have made tones of bank over the last decade still have long running comic series to their name? Statistically, you didn’t.
I’ll cop to this being mostly an American issue though; in Japan, you can buy a manga for every kind of story, from Tennis, to Epic Fantasy, to Even More Epic Cooking Battles. And in Italy, Donald Duck is loved not as a hot-headed everydude, but as the costumed vigilant (and jerkass), Paperinik.
It shows in works that have jumped mediums too. While Western animation has stopped feeling the need to stop and constantly pay homage to Disney and Looney Tunes (especially the pivotal works of Tex Avery), with such homages, like Futurama’s tribute to animation styles, being rare and special, superhero media still feel the abiding need to pay tribute to their ancestors.
With one awesome exception, pretty much any superhero movie you name if going to be based on a comic book, or a combination parody of a comic book/crime against humanity. Oh, and check out the Superhero Literature page on TVTropes. Take a look at how many of them explicitly have a Superman analog (if you’re feeling lazy, here is a link to the entry of ‘Expy‘. Do a crtl-F for ‘Superman’).
I got away with Liedecker being considered one for the DCAU version of Lex Luthor, which is kissing cousins to this idea. Meanwhile, I’m not even going to hide the Inexorable is an homage to Cain Marko, the Unstoppable Juggernaut.
In the world of music, it’s much the same. Let’s have some fun with lists: Here is a list of the best Superhero songs from Billboard, and here is another one from Rocktopia.
Oh, I’m sorry, those are lists about specific superheroes. Let’s find a lit of songs that are just about superheroes in general.
Actually, we’re not going to find one that easily. Why? Because most superhero songs are just about a give superhero. Check it out:
Three Doors Down – Kryptonite, Five For Fighting – Superman (It’s Not Easy), Matchbox 20 – Real World, Crash Test Dummies – Superman’s Song, The Flaming Lips – Waiting For Superman. These are all songs about Superman, and these are just the ones I have in my personal music collection.
Let’s look further and check out some more music I own: ‘Superhero’ by Stereo Fuse is off the The Medallion soundtrack (a movie featuring Jackie Chan, who is undeniably superhuman), and is generally all about how awesome it would be to have superpowers and gadgets… but still feels obligated to name check Batman.
Not The Medallion. Not Jackie Chan. But this is a thing of beauty.
I’m not sure how to evaluate some of these. For example, Ookla the Mok is a band specializing in filk style songs, and as such, probably aren’t trying to make some larger point with reference filled songs like Super Powers, Arthur Curry, or The Theme from Super Skrull. Similarly, nerdcore rapper MC Chris is probably in the same boat with his song, Nrrd Grrl, digs deep to reference obscure (except to me) characters like X-23, Hellion, Wallflower and Elixir, and throws in Cassandra Cain for good measure.
And then there are others, like Chad Kroger’s Hero (Those of you who are twelve can stop wailing and gnashing your teeth now), which is from the ST for the first Spider-Man movie, but actually says nothing about superpowers, or Holding Out For a Hero by Bonnie Tyler (With an excellent cover by Frou Frou), which has all the right elements, but clearly isn’t about a superhero either.
To be honest, in all of my highly scientific research, the only song explicitly about Superheroes that doesn’t stop to pay homage or throw out a name check seems to the Everyday Superhero by Smash Mouth (which is apparently not sold stand alone).
That’s right one. A single one in what may well have been minutes or even hour (singular) of meticulous research on Google.
And I can hear you thinking now: ‘that doesn’t mean anything. Not all genres transfer over to music as easily as Romance or Ass-kicking
You heard me. Ass-kicking
And to you, hypothetical reader, I put this to you: How many cowboy songs can you think of that completely fail to mention Clint Eastwood, Tombstone or the Magnificent Seven? Well off the top of my head, I can rattle off quiet a few: Dr. Dre (ft. Eminem) – Bad Guys Always Die, Dead or Alive (in Daugherty and Bon Jovi flavors), Riders in the Sky (as performed by the Blues Brothers show band), and Kid Rock – Cowboy.
Same thing with science fiction, Hell, one of my all time favorites is Thomas Dolby – She Blinded Me With Science and I could go on forever there.
It’s just that people seem very comfortable with superheroes as they coalesced sometime in 1960. Most people can’t name a single Superman story that wasn’t one of the movies, but they love hearing about Supes. You ask someone about the Long Halloween and they’ll start talking about the Great Pumpkin, but everyone wants to be Batman. They’ve become icons of a culture.
Let’s hop over to literature, where something that’s not quite the opposite is happening. If you go back up to, or didn’t exit the tab on the link to Superhero Literature, just go and sample a few. Don’t worry, I’ll wait. Back? Cool. As you might notice, there’s an odd thing going on there. Ninety-percent of the genre is made up of deconstructions.
I’m going to catch literary hell for this, but here it goes: after the first, say, ten percent, deconstruction isn’t the same as creativity, it’s the literary version of snark. It’s being that guy, who feels the need to point out that pro wrestling is fake and NASCAR is nothing but driving in a circle a decade after we all knew this and the people who are still into those things no longer care.
Even the best written, highest quality stories tend to fall into the same pattern, and by now, the rut is so deep that we’re in danger of breaching the Earth’s mantle.
Okay, yes, superhero fights cause a lot of collateral damage and may hurt bystanders. We all know this now, thank you. We know this so hard that Marvel created Damage Control in the eighties to address this point, and then parlayed the whole idea into a terrible event. When the biggest perpetrator in the business addresses the concept head on, and then runs it right into the ground, I think its safe to say WE GET THE POINT ALREADY. This idea is not new. This is not a revelation that will grant you the crown of creativity. The horse is dead and you are gnawing on its rump.
Along the same lines, yes, being a superhero and fighting evil can take a heavy toll on the mind and the body. This idea even still has legs (see the Stackpole book above), but there has to be more than that. There are too many shallow, opportunistic deconstructions out there that do nothing more with it than writing ‘and then e went insane and died’, or write some character’s suicide and call it a day. Again, just having this as a lesson and shoving it in people’s faces is not the ingredient for creativity pie.
You know what is creative though? Doing something different. Superhero, as a genre, has a pretty basic template to make it recognizable (And I’ll get into that in part 2), but people spend so much time nitpicking and mocking the older, simpler stories that they seem to forget to actually customize that template. (I actually, and honestly feel sometimes that I’m actually the outlier for portraying characters who enjoy being heroes)
For example, superheroes aren’t tied to any setting; neither time, nor space. And yet most superhero stories will take place in a vaguely metropolitan city in the late 20th/early 21st century, or a short distance into the future. Other than ‘It’s hard to spit venom at Silver Age comics if I’m not mirroring Metropolis/Gotham/New York’, why the hell aren’t there more superheroes on fictional worlds, or the far flung future, or the past? I once ran a DnD game that was ‘Superheroes in Faerun‘ and it was made of awesome, so why don’t we see more of that? Or gank into other genres and rock out with some Spaghetti Western superheroes (who aren’t gunslingers or magic Indians), or Renaissance or Victorian? There was a bit in Joss Whedon’s short and ill planned (but fun) run on Runaways where we get to see supers from the Roaring Twenties, and my friend, Justin Childress (also the person who suggested this topic) has a book out about a Steampunk Superhero—why not have some more of that, please?
Maybe it’s not just that a lot of people find lit-cred more important than being actually good. Maybe the problem is that the genre is so young that it’s hard to set one foot in front of the other and figure out where the basics of the genre are, so that we can build on and customize those.
Maybe someone should step up and actually take a crack at defining the genre; what makes it what it is, what breaks it, and what sets it apart from other genres.
And that someone is me.
Next week is the First Friday, so stay tuned for Rune Breaker, but after that, stay tuned for Part 2: Genre Under Construction.
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