META: Notes on a Genre I Love

Tom Russell milos_parker at
Thu Mar 5 08:33:13 PST 2009



   I love superheroes.  I love men and women in tights jumping on rooftops and beating the snot out of each other.  I love cosmic space-gods locked in millennia-long space-war using space-weapons and god-tactics that are as beyond our comprehension as our world is to microscopic life forms.  I love anti-matter dimensions and worlds contained within a single atom.
   I love grizzled vigilantes fighting to take back the streets; I love brightly-coloured celebrities protecting the world from aliens, Atlantians, and sinister masterminds.  I love narrowly-escaped death traps, secret identities, kid sidekicks, and arch-enemies who live to fight another day.  I love giant typewriters and robots and talking apes and impossibly ridiculous bits of technology.
   I love crazy ideas and comedy, gritty crime and high-octane melodrama, soap opera and subtlety, science fiction and fantasy, pageantry and spectacle: pain and death and love and betrayal and honour: life!
   The much-maligned superhero genre contains all these things in one breath; it has room for any kind of story, any kind of character, any kind of tone.  Compare this to any other genre and you very quickly become aware of what a special quality this is.  King Arthur's Merlin would be out of place in a gritty gin-soaked hard-boiled noir story; Travis Bickle should stay far, far away from romantic comedy.
   That's not to say that these genres are necessarily set in stone: combine fantasy or science fiction with the American West, for example, and you get the Weird Western.  (And now that I think about it, I'd love to watch a romcom about a psychopath like Bickle.)  There is some wiggle room and just as every art form borrows from every other art form, every genre does the same.
   I'm not saying that the defining features of other genres are necessarily limiting; rather, I'm saying that the defining feature of the superhero genre is its limitlessness.  Partially this is because it is a gestalt or bastard genre, a big American Melting Plot of tropes and archetypes.  But a bigger part of this freedom is also a matter of form.  While superhero stories can be told in any media, they flourished-- and still exhibit dominance over-- comic books.  And it's not even so much that the special language of comics is the best fit for the genre or that the art form itself is "more" limitlessness than other art forms; rather, the salient fact I wish to highlight is that comics, as they have been published for the last hundred-plus years, are serial.
   Superman comics have been published continuously since 1938, but that doesn't mean it's been one big constantly-unfolding saga, one interminably-long story piling on characters and plot complications.  It is, instead, many, many stories, often a new story every month, with each story varying from its predecessors and descendants in matters of style, substance, plot, theme, and tone.
   And that's the true measure of the genre's limitlessness.  It's not that you can use it to tell any kind of story, but that you can use it to tell any kind of story you want about the same characters.  That's the power of a serial format, which is, it must be noted, markedly different from a mere series.  Try to shift the tone or type of story from one film in a series to the next, for example, and it won't be nearly as successful, as Godfather III and the fourth Indiana Jones film can no doubt attest.
   But the superhero genre has even more latitude for these sorts of shifts and twists than other works of serial storytelling.  While the soap opera-- with its unexpected plot twists, secret plots, long-lost twins, and unexpected resurrections-- has a surprising amount in common with the superhero genre, it often stretches credulity to the nth degree as it strives to find a new crisis, anguish, or secret for a given character to suffer through that tops the crises, anguishes, and secrets they went through three months prior.  It gets to the point that the audience begins to ask, how many times can someone kidnap/impersonate/possess/frame for murder a seemingly normal homemaker?  (Answer: a lot, apparently.)
   But because superhero stories are about superheroes, who put their lives in danger on a regular basis by definition, we're able to suspend our disbelief more than we can when following around a society wife.  It makes far more sense for mobsters, aliens, and deranged maniacs to center their psychosis on a man, woman, or robot that's dedicated their lives to fighting said mobsters, aliens, or deranged maniacs than it is for mobsters, et al. to focus on tormenting Luke and Laura.  (Though, you have to admit, Luke's pretty bad-ass.  You remember when he and Scorpio stopped the Cassadines from taking over the world with an ice machine?  That was awesome!)
   If it is the presence of the superhero that allows the genre to be "more" limitless in terms of tone, style, and genre than a soap opera or professional wrestling, the question (of course) is begged: what exactly makes a superhero a superhero?  Is it the presence of certain tropes, such as a costume, a secret identity, powers or gadgets?  What differentiates a superhero from a pulp hero, such as the Shadow, Doc Savage, and Tarzan?
   These are important and valuable questions, and I have the utmost respect for those commentators, scholars, buffs, and bloggers who have sought to find the answers-- but I must confess that it's not a question that particularly interests me personally in my capacity as the author of this piece.  I know a superhero when I see one, and that's good enough for me.  I am, however, interested in clearly stating the major difference between the superhero story and its exact opposite, the anti-superhero story, which comes down to, for me, the other major defining feature of the former.
   In addition to, and part-and-parcel of, the genre's aforementioned limitlessness, there is also the matter of optimism: the superhero genre is inherently optimistic.  Even a dark avenger like Batman, standing on a rain-swept rooftop as crime and sordidness swirls below him, is an optimistic figure.  Despite the fact that his fight is hopeless-- despite the fact that he will never vanquish crime in Gotham City-- he continues to fight.  As one of the smartest men on the planet, Bruce Wayne knows that his mission is an impossible one, and yet each night, as he dons his cape and cowl, he rededicates himself to that mission-- to the idea that he can make a difference.  And that, to me, is an act of optimism.  A life of optimism.
   People misunderstand optimism and cynicism.  I had a friend who, when asked which column he would put himself in, answered that he was realistic.  But "realistic" doesn't really figure into it.  All of us can and should be realistic; every human being owes it to themselves to be a member of the fact-based community.  Optimism and cynicism has nothing to do with "realism"; optimism as I see it really has nothing to do with Pangloss and "the best of all possible worlds".  Optimism and cynicism have nothing to do with the world as it is but with the world as it might be.
   Neither the optimist or the cynic ignore the pain and suffering in the world and the capacity for cruelty and selfishness in the human character.  The difference is this: the cynic sees all this and says, it's just going to get worse.  The optimist sees all this and says, it can be better.  We can make it better.  It won't be easy, but we can do it.  Yes, we can.  The audacity of hope.  (My goodness, it's a good time to be an American.)
   It has nothing to do with wishing it better or wearing a "Save Darfur" t-shirt.  It requires that we acknowledge the reality of the situation we're trying to change.  It requires action.  It requires dramatic example and inspiration.  And those ideas-- that impulse-- is at the heart of the superhero and his genre.
   If the superhero story is powered by and functions as an extension of optimism, the anti-superhero story is powered by cynicism: we can't do it, it's stupid to try, and even if someone had the power to make a difference, they wouldn't do it anyway.  They would use their power to accumulate great wealth.  They would terrorize normal people.  They would kill and rape and maim because there would be no one who could stand up to them.  They would be fascists.
   And, granted, if superpowers and gadgetry existed in our world, there would be people who would abuse that power to base and vile ends.  Even in superhero stories, there are people like that.  We call them supervillains.  And since most superhero stories and universes feature far more villains than heroes, perhaps this bares out the cynic's conception, at least by a slim majority headcount.
   But I refuse to believe that all people are slaves to their baser urges.  Even without superpowers, there are people who do acts of good, who try to help others, who try to make a positive difference.  People who inspire others and people who are inspired by others.  And those are the kind of people that we should be celebrating.  Cynicism celebrates nothing, it contributes nothing.  It is actually nihilism, and if you haven't outgrown nihilism by the age of twenty-two then I feel supremely sorry for you.
   And I'm not saying that I believe in the myth of a perfect person, or that I'd find a perfect superhero an interesting one.  People are complex.  They're capable of great good and great evil.  They are tempted and occasionally they are weak.  We are driven by psychological motives that aren't always altruistic.  But as human beings we're capable of being better and I believe many of us strive to become better.
   Superhero stories are about the potential of human beings; a good superhero story affirms the innate dignity of the human spirit.  And that's why it's a genre I love.


   When we say something is a serial, we're really referring to two not-entirely-separate and overlapping traditions.  The major Victorian novels, for example, were serialized; they told a finite if occasionally sprawling story with a beginning, middle, and end.  This sort of serial we'll call a saga, as in "tune in next time for the next chapter of the continuing saga of [blank]."  A saga seeks to tell one long story, often ending each installment on some sort of cliffhanger or hook to ensure that we do, indeed, tune in next time.
   The other tradition generally relies on self-contained episodes.  Each episode of Dragnet or Gunsmoke, for example, is distinct from every other episode and can be comprehended, understood, and enjoyed all on its lonesome.  The success of that sort of open-ended serial depends on the ability of its writers to come up with new and interesting stories, and they are helped or hindered in that effort by their ability or lack thereof to build what John Seavey calls a Storytelling Engine:

"The idea is that when creating an open-ended series, you include a variety of different elements that act to help the writer in generating ideas for stories; each of these elements can be seen as a component in a 'storytelling engine'... So what elements make up a storytelling engine? The basic concept of the series, for starters; Doctor Who... has as its concept 'a mysterious stranger has a time and space machine.' Then from there, you layer on the main character, with his motivations and backstory ('an endlessly curious not-quite-human trickster, on the run from his own people who see helping people as a crime'), the supporting cast ('a young woman with more curiosity and guts than common sense'), the setting ('the inside of the time machine', 'modern-day London', 'a variety of alien planets', 'various Earth historical locales'), the antagonists ('a variety of evil aliens who seek to enslave or destroy people'), and the tone ('light-hearted adventure,
 with occasional forays into horror.') Each of these, ideally, does something to help the writer come up with a story or move it along, and each of them could be changed in ways that help or hinder the writer. (For example, if the Doctor was 'a heavy reader with no interests beyond enlarging his vast library', the series would probably have to work much harder to get him involved in events.)"

   For more on storytelling engines, I would of course recommend looking at Seavey's impressive examinations and notes on the various storytelling engines in comics and television over at his wonderful site,  But, for our purposes, I think you've got the general idea, and we've arrived at our two traditions of serial storytelling: the saga and the engine.
   With the exception of Victorian novels and older television shows, however, you're unlikely to find the two traditions segregated.  Modern television programs might still pit their heroes against the monster- or crime-of-the-week, but each season might take the form of a larger "saga".  From season to season, subplots unfold and characters grow, making use of the best aspects of saga-telling while remaining open-ended (and thus-- let's be honest here-- more profitable).
   Superhero stories are especially likely to marry and make use of the two approaches, with stand-alone stories and longer arcs combining amid an often soap operatic backdrop of supporting characters, subplots, twists of fate and reversals of fortune.  And, as mentioned previously, the special ability of the superhero story to change tone and mix genre elements from one installment to the next is just as much a result of engine-driven seriality as it is of the circumstances of the genre's bastardry.
   Regardless of how one mixes it, creators of an open-ended series absolutely must keep accessibility in mind.  As Jim Shooter once remarked, every issue is somebody's first issue.  This does not mean that continuity-- that is, the idea that previous stories matter-- should be avoided or dismissed, and this does not mean that the seventh part of a seven-part epic must stop dead in its tracks to catch the reader up with what happened in the last six.  What this means, rather, is if a reader stumbles across your twentieth episode, he should not have to have read parts one through nineteen in order for that story to "work".
   This doesn't mean that one should rely on unnaturally exposition-heavy dialogue ("As you know, Wonder Moth, if you don't recharge in the Cosmic God-Sack every twenty-four hours, you will die") but rather that the reader should always understand what is at stake:

   Wonder Moth stopped for a moment and caught his breath.
   "How much time is left?" asked Samwise Grubgee.
   "An hour.  Maybe two.  I don't remember..."
   "Just hang in there," said Samwise.  "We'll get you back to the Cosmic God-Sack."
   Wonder Moth thanked him with a nod and they continued on their way.  But both of them knew that Flojira was still two space-jumps away...

   The reader doesn't always have to be told explicitly who's who and what's what, but they should be able to follow it.  From the above snippet, we can decipher that Samwise and Wonder Moth are allies.  We don't need to be told if they're lifelong friends or erstwhile allies; we just need to know that they're apparently on the same side.
   If, in fact, they're not on the same side-- if they're lifelong enemies who have temporarily become allied in order to confront a greater evil or pursue a common goal-- then we need to know that.

   "How much time is left?" asked Samwise Grubgee.
   "Two hours, maybe three."
   Samwise knew Wonder Moth was lying, trying to hide his weakness.  "Don't worry.  I'll get you to your Cosmic God-Sack."
   "Thanks, Sam," smirked Wonder Moth.  "I didn't know you cared."
   "Oh, I still want you dead, no doubt about that," said Samwise.  "But I will be the one to bring you down, and only when you are at the height of your powers.  To let you slowly shrink away into oblivion because of some accident of your ridiculous biology?  Bah.  That's no victory at all."
   They started again on their way towards Flojira.  "Never change, Samwise.  Never change."

   And, granted, that one probably tilts a little too much in the exposition direction, but I think you get my drift: the reader should more-or-less know what's going on in any given episode without having to read all the previous installments.  All salient facts and components needed to enjoy an episode should be provided within that episode.  Each one should stand on its own.
   There is, however, a larger point floating around there: not only should each episode stand on its own in terms of being understood in and of itself, but each episode should stand on its own in terms of serving as a self-contained story in its own right.  That is, each episode should tell some kind of story with a beginning, middle, and end; each episode should have a satisfying conclusion.
   Now, this is a point I've made in the past that has at times been grossly misunderstood.  I am not saying that each episode should possess a self-contained plot-based narrative-- though that often helps.  Understanding story as "plot" is the simplest and least interesting way to both read and write works of serial literature.  A story can also be about a character.  I'm not talking in terms of a character driving a plot-- though, as Henry James tells us, that is as it should be-- but in terms of an episode exploring an aspect of a given character so that by its end, some new facet has been illuminated or some new understanding has been gained.  Regardless of what happens in terms of plot-- this could be part three of the four-part final showdown between Wonder Moth and Samwise Grubgee-- some central question posed early on is answered later on.
   Even more fruitful for the superhero genre, which typically poses questions of morality, of good and evil, of life and death, is an episode that tells a thematic story.  Each scene or character might give us a different slant or idea on the big theme that ties the story together.  That last bit is important: an episode should feel self-cohesive.  An episode doesn't end merely because the time or page count has expired, but because the story the author was telling-- plot-based, character-based, theme-based, whatever-- has been completed.
   And this doesn't mean that a writer can't use subplots, though as a reader who wasted many years and dollars reading X-Men and waiting for something to actually happen, I myself generally eye them suspiciously and urge you, readers and authors both, to do the same.  But if one has a lot of plot threads that must be advanced simultaneously, one or two threads could be used to tie it together or drive the character- or themed-based story.  That thread provides the satisfaction, the sense of cohesion, the sense that this episode "counts" for something and that the reader didn't just waste their time reading unrelated anecdotes.  And that, in turn, ensures that the reader returns for the next installment-- which is the whole point of writing a serial in the first place.


   As Warren Ellis, Chris Ware, and other cynics will no doubt tell you, superheroes are inherently ridiculous.  Accepting as a postulate the idea that if people found themselves gifted with incredible and weird powers that they would use them to fight crime (or commit it), there's still the question of code-names, gaudy skintight costumes, secret identities, law enforcement agencies and lawful citizens who either celebrate or at the very least tolerate the massive property damage incurred during your average superhero slobberknocker-- and that's just for starters.  That's not even getting into talking apes and parallel dimensions and, yes, giant typewriters.
   And, you know what?  I'll give them that.  Absolutely, superheroes and the universes they inhabit are ridiculous on their face.  But rather than seeing that as a liability, or as a reason to endorse "campy" material (shudder), I see it as a source of great strength.  Like its "bastard" origin, it allows the superhero genre to go places and do things that other genres can't; the best superhero stories use the ridiculous to approach the sublime.
   No one did this better than Jack Kirby.  Perfect example: the Silver Surfer.  The Kirby creation that would become Stan Lee's favourite character (and a point of contention between Lee and Kirby) is one of the most soulful and philosophical of all superhero characters, unraveling the mysteries of the self and the universe as he traverses the cosmos on his surfboard.  Let's look at that last word again: surfboard.  The Silver Surfer is a chrome-plated naked humanoid WITH A COSMIC SURFBOARD.  That we're able to take this character so seriously and able to feel his existential angst so potently when he has a frickin' surfboard is a testament not only to the skills of Kirby and Lee but also to the genre they were working in.
   Less popular than the Surfer, but a character that I and many others take no less seriously, is his cousin at Marvel's Distinguished Competition, the Black Racer.  The personification of death for Kirby's Fourth World, the Black Racer soars through the skies on a pair of frickin' skis!  Utterly ridiculous.  Can you imagine Death in the Seventh Seal bearing down from the skies on a pair of skis?
   But Kirby makes it work, for Surfer and skier both.  I've tried to analyze this for both but been unable to on any intelligible or conscious level.  And that's because these sort of ideas are like a swift punch to our subconscious: their absolute ridiculousness defies any rational explanation besides, "Awesome!"
   And that, I think, is what makes them work.  The sublime is a profoundly non-intellectual place.  A religious ceremony, a great film (Ozu, Bresson), an aesthetic moment in life: they are ideas we have no words for, emotions that cannot be named.  Ozu and Bresson use the slow accumulation of detail, stillness, silence, and a certain formal austerity (see Paul Schrader's "Transcendental Style in Film") to get us beyond our conventional intellectual and emotional responses to someplace more spiritual.  Kirby, being more direct and perhaps a bit suspicious of a languid pace, gets us there by punching us in the face with the one-two combination of OMAC and Devil Dinosaur.
   The important thing to note, though, isn't just that he has crazy ideas but how he uses those ideas.  He gets us past our intellects, but then he gives us something to think about: the Black Racer, for example, is used to bring up questions of death and mortality and destiny without (and this is the key to any good art) ever coming out and explicitly posing the question.
   Some writers use these sort of whacky ideas to explore some deeper aspect of a character's psychology.  Who can forget the classic story in Superman # 125, in which Superman loses all his powers (all his self, all his identity) and gains one new power, to wit, the ability to create a miniature duplicate of himself with all his old powers.  The miniature duplicate gets all the credit, the press, the adulation; Superman starts to resent and hate the little creature for making him feel, well, small.  It is a marvelously complex piece of work, one that also apparently greatly influenced Grant Morrison in writing his "All-Star Superman" (Morrison being perhaps a modern master of using the ridiculous and the insane to take us to nirvana, though I could actually do without his metatextualism [blasphemy, I know]).
   One last example: readers of the LNH are no doubt familiar, at least in passing, with the classic story Particle Man Annual # 1.  Since I've written about this story before, I'm going to be extremely lazy and just quote that bit:

 "It is, essentially, a shaggy dog story, the whole story builds until the cabbie gets the girl, starts a rental car agency, and sends Boy Lad a letter signed 'Love Hertz'.  The whole story's really there to support 
this pun. 
   "And yet, there's something sad about that pun, it's almost a cruel joke on Boy Lad and it magnifies his pain a hundred fold, pain that's been built into the preceding text.  If it is a shaggy dog story, than it's a sad one, it's one with heart. 
   "To me, that's the best kind of serious LNH story: one that takes a very silly place very seriously, one that treats the very silly people who populate it as real human beings that merit our attention and affection."

   The same could be said, perhaps, for superheroes in general: it takes something very silly very seriously and the end result is something glorious.  Taking the whacky ideas seriously and using the whacky ideas to explore serious things is what ultimately separates superheroes from farce, Kirby from camp.


More information about the racc mailing list