The Superhero Genre Part 3: Think Of the Potential!
Last week, I defined the Superhero genre in the long form. To recap, here’s the theme park version:
A Superhero genre work is one that is defined by the presence of characters with exceptional abilities, who deal with situations and problems that their society as a whole is not set up to handle, tend toward having layered personas, and whose goals and motivators are on going and open ended.
Dumbed down: Superhero stories involve worlds where superheroes exist.
Sorry if you were expecting something deeper or more serious sounding, but the superhero is a character archetype that’s as unique as it is broad. There’s just no better way that I’ve found to describe the genre. In fact, if you look at the description of the genre on Wikipedia, you’ll see that it’s woefully, pitifully narrow.
You will notice that Superhero as a genre makes no assumptions of setting, technology, magic, tone, themes, or a lot of the other things that define many other genres like ‘punk’s cynicism, sci-fi’s technology, or horror’s fear. Superhero is a very broad genre with a lot of uncharted territory to explore.
Unfortunately, as I’ve pointed out before, that doesn’t mean people take advantage of it. Most Superhero stories take place in the modern world, are very clearly either good vs. evil or slightly less evil vs evil (I’m looking at you, Punisher, The Authority, Ultimates, and anything written by Mark Millar), and don’t really mess with the formula. Hell, I’m guilty of this myself. ‘Urban Superhero’ as I like to call it is an easy starting point, especially when your aim is to deal with the character and not the setting.
But let’s take a look at some existing outliers, shall we?
Yes, even the big dogs in the superhero genre have put out some interesting deviations from the basic ‘Urban Superhero’ formula in comic form. These include:
GL has been around for a very long time and through a lot of different incarnations, and while the series is probably now most famous for contributing members to the Justice League, in some of its greater moments of brilliance, it was a superhero police drama, sort of a slightly cleaner NYPD Blue or The Wire with aliens and power rings.
See, beyond the power ring and the famous oath, the most notable thing about Green Lantern is that the individual Green Lanterns who appear in Justice League are actually part of a universe-spanning police force, who at various times were called upon to stop intergalactic smugglers, human (er…alien) trafficking and drug rings. They had partners, they went undercover, and in general, they really did portray police with a super heroic twist.
Marvel also fielded a wonderful, albeit smaller scale police drama in District X, which dealt with cops tasked with keeping the peace in a predominantly mutant neighborhood. The series was a clever and interesting facet in the X-men franchise, so of course it was destroyed by the Decimation event, which destroyed approximately 80% of the creativity and social relevancy of the franchise.
Off the beaten path, you also get Powers, a comic from Marvel’s Icon imprint (though it started out with Image), which is probably the best but not most well known version of this implementation. This one features all-original characters, is not tied to a larger continuity (thus making it immune to stupid and disruptive events) and tells police procedural stories that simply take superheroes as a given instead of really trying to produce a twist.
Another comic series that’s gone through a number of permutations, it’s the original run I’m talking about here. Back in the 80’s, this book showed up with a unique (at the time) blend of the regular Superhero genre and the Supervillain subgenre.
The T-bolts were a team of superheroes who were revealed at the end of the first issue to actually be villains pretending to be heroes for the purposes of a gloriously long con on the entire world. This resulted in early issue to contrast between the characters being wonderful and heroic in public, but terrible and villainous in private (You might recognize this as the entire premise of Marvel’s Ultimate Universe without the clever twist).
The most interesting thing, however, was that eventually, the group ended up with divided loyalties, as some of the T-bolts genuinely started to enjoy being heroes, one of their new members was a newbie that didn’t even know the others were villains, and their leader remained an absolute bastard. Even to this day, a great deal of the character development from this book remains intact.
This concept has been tried again, even in later volumes of Thunderbolts, and in DC’s Suicide Squad, but the original remains fairly unmatched in its ingenuity in its use of the genre.
Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane
Back in the bygone days of the 50’s and 60’s, when the world feared nuclear annihilation, Joe McCarthy was developing his own, contagious strain of paranoia schizophrenia to infect the country with, and, if TV is telling the truth, the world was rendered in black and white, there was such a thing as a Romance Comic.
These were aimed squarely at the then-thriving female comic reading populace, and were actually very, very popular, having been one of the few survivors of the comics apocalypse that was the coming of the Comics Code Authority.
For reasons I haven’t been able to dig up, sales collapsed for these in the seventies with the only traces to remain being found in some of the less episodic Archie franchise titles. Spider-man Loves Mary Jane was a little love letter to that genre, mixing it with Slice of Life and Superhero to come out with a wonderful Life Embellished title, which is a genre in and of itself that is largely relegated to webcomics like Real Life.
The interesting thing here is that the entire thing is centered on Mary Jane Watson in her high school years. MJ is the quintessential superhero love interest (right down to the red hair), a character type that is usually relegated to romantic subplots that are overshadowed by action. Here, she and her day to day life take center stage, along with her crush on Spider-man, unsuspecting that he and nerdy Peter Parker are one and the same.
This excellent title manages to pull a perspective flip on an under-utilized corner of the genre and makes it work.
Superheroic love and romance is also dealt with in the wonderful webcomic, Love and Capes, which does focuses on the main couple while the standard Urban Superhero world goes on around them.
There is a lot to be said about Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona’s landmark Marvel series, Runaways. It fits extremely well into the Marvel Universe, but manages to create something wholly unique along the way. Starting out the book deals with the children of supervillains who refuse to follow in their parent’s footsteps and who later step up to deal with the dangers the power vacuum left by their parents pose to their home.
The brilliance is the unique synthesis of Family, Superhero, Romance and Teen Drama tropes the series is built on and how much care is show in illustrating how these interact with the reality of superheroes existing in the world. The titular characters themselves manage to fulfill all the criteria I set out in the previous article for a Superhero character while being far, far removed from the traditional view. There’s really nothing out there that I’ve seen that’s like it except maybe early Gen13.
But of course, American Comics aren’t the only works that hit all the marks for the superhero genre that I’ve set out. And what else does fit the bill might actually surprise you. Unfortunately, the only large body of cultural works I’m familiar with are those from Japan, so that’s where I’ll be drawing all my further examples. But that’s okay, because they have plenty:
Japan never suffered through the Comic Code Authority, or the great collapse of the animation industry that left both of those art forms stigmatized as ‘kid stuff’ like it’s largely been in the US (Even today, adult animated shows are almost required to be comedies here.)
Consequently, their comics and animated shows run the gamut from romantic comedies to horror, to crime stories and beyond. This also allowed for a larger mixing of genres and demographics, which includes the spawning of several wild variants on the Superhero that has nothing to do with ‘Urban Superhero’. In fact, the only show I can think of off the top of my head that fits the bill is Tiger and Bunny. For everything else, they have…
This one even has ‘super’ right in the name, and the robots often wear capes. It’s a slam dunk.
Well, not really. Super Robot is actually opposed to Real Robot as a genre, where the latter treats robots as machines with pseudo-realistic limitations and designs. Super Robot, on the other hand grants the robots magical or just plain improbable abilities that can’t be easily explained by techno-babble. Most Gundam shows where an actual war is being fought at Real Robot shows, while Escaflowne, where the robot is powered by dragon hearts and awesome is a Super Robot Show.
That alone doesn’t make a given show part of the Superhero genre, but it provides the first step, a superpower. To go the rest of the way, you have to go more in depth and you’ll find that many Super Robot shows do, in fact, pass the test.
For example, the aforementioned Escaflowne doesn’t. The thrust of Escaflowne is winning a war, meaning that it fails at the ‘crusade’ phase.
On the other hand, Neon Genesis Evangelion passes. The robots have clearly supernatural abilities (AT fields, for one), the conflict is well and truly beyond the purview of the rest of the world, the pilots are forced into splitting their personas between being kids and being soldiers in a war for the world’s survival, and their job is to protect humanity, and not just from the Angels.
Likewise, The Big O is essentially Batman with a giant robot and a smaller robot Robin. Roger Smith’s superpower is his wealth and his possession of the ‘megadeus’ (giant, magic robot), Big O and he fights to protect his city and region from large scale threats that can take out the police instantly. All while not even knowing who he used to be in the past.
And a non-Japanese example, Megas XLR, a tribute to all giant robot shows everywhere, also plays this to a T, granting Coop a super-advanced giant robot that only works for him, tasking him with defending the Earth from enemies the Megas was designed to fight, and constantly contrasting his actual behavior with the true savior of humanity he needs to be.
But we’re just getting started because…
Most people know Sentai via the Power Rangers franchise, which, for the bulk of it’s ongoing run, has been the localization of five billion separate Japanese properties. For while, these were really, really big in America with the rangers being joined by VR Troopers, Mystic Knights of Tir Na Nog (best remembered now from a throw away gag I did in The Descendants about Tink’s neighborhood, Twin Timbers ‘getting the ax’) and Big Bad Beetleborgs.
Now you too understand the most obscure reference ever made by a person who wasn’t immediately wedgied for his crimes.
Sentai is all about superheroes, but the thing that sets it apart is that it treat superheroing as a team sport. And I’m not talking about super team in the sense that the Avengers or the X-men are a team; those guys really just show up to fight evil in the same place. Sentai teams are teams in the sense that baseball teams are teams.
They generally have a clear leader (who usually wears red and is the rookie), they dress in similar uniforms that are often color coded, and their tactics often involve combination attacks and combining their powers. Outside of the occasional Fastball Special, you’re rarely see, say Thor using his hammer to super charge Iron Man’s Uni-beam, which will in turn be used to make Captain America go into his super mode.
There’s something to be said about what America’s love of individual superheroes and Japan’s love of super-teamwork say about their cultures, but I’d rather blow your mind by talking about…
Yes, that kind of show. The one aimed at pre-teen girls where the main character gets a transformative device that gives her powers, maybe a cute, talking pet, and has to split her time between saving the universe from (mostly) magical creatures.
Wait a tick… Why yes indeed, these shows hit every single mark on my superhero rubric.
That’s because magical girls are superheroes. Not even a ‘with the serial numbers filed off’ caveat, they just are. End of story. People just don’t think about it because, again, most people in America where they use superhero the most, think of superheroes as a thing for boys.
But if you strip off all the ‘for girls’ stigma and anime styling, there’s really not a hell of a lot of difference between Usagi Tsukino (Sailor Moon) and Kyle Rayner (the best Green Lantern who isn’t Jon Stewart or Rot Lop Fan). I use Green Lantern here because like him, Sailor Moon turns out to be just one of a cadre of empowered folk tasked to protect the universe.
If you stop and think about it, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is actually a magical girl show (But not Dark Angel, both of which is going to come up a lot in next week’s article).
Now with all this in mind, imagine all the directions the Superhero genre is yet to take.
As I’ve said before, setting changes are obvious, but what about theme changes or perspective flips? Looking at other parts of the universes these characters inhabit open up many doors.
What is life like for the mentors who train heroes for greatness without having the ability to do what must be done on their own? What about the lives of the sidekicks and secret keepers?
Think about how the government would have to work in order to enable superheroes, and how basic services like bars and restaurants might have to change to accommodate being frequented by super-folk. What does the world look like from nations that aren’t heavy with superheroes when New York has thousands?
Even in the standard ‘Urban Superhero’ genre, there are still many, many tales to be told in new and interesting ways, only no one’s taking those bold steps into the chaos at the moment.
I know for a fact that this little trip into actually studying the genre I occupy has made me want to take those steps—how about you? Are you ready to read it? Are you ready to write it?
Next week, I discuss heroines and the modern action girl archetype in a new article ‘Daughters of Buffy’.
And in closing, the second Rune Breaker Book, Lighter Days, Darker Nights is on sale now for the Amazon Kindle. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can download an app to read Kindle books on most mobile platforms here. Plus, this weekend, Friday through Sunday, you can pick up the first book, A Girl and Her Monster totally free.
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