META: Notes on a Genre I Love

Tom Russell milos_parker at
Thu Mar 5 19:10:33 PST 2009

Though actually I see that my paragraphing didn't quite come through,
so let me repost it through google.  (This will also make sure that,
yes, this will work.)



   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
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
   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

   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
   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

   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.

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