Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Superhero Genre

When the word 'comics' comes up, in many cases, its shorthand for 'superhero comics'. Comics are, as I've addressed a few times and is fairly easy to see looking beyond the surface, a medium and not a genre, but that's neither here nor there. In many ways, American comics ARE superheroes. There are a multitude of reasons for this, but one of the main ones being that, as comics struggled through the 50s and 60s, almost all the other genres that were popular at the time (romance, horror, scifi comics, etc) just didn't survive while superhero books did. A complicated history led to all of this, but right now I want to focus on the genre itself rather than the why.

But before going further, a clarification is important to make here. Superheroes are a genre, yes, but not as specific as something like science fiction. The superhero genre really is a larger, overarching idea that can and does encompass practically any genre one could want. There's science fiction (Fantastic Four, Green Lantern), horror (Hellboy, Ghost Rider), crime/noir (Batman), and various others depending on exactly how you want to nail things down. But while the specifics can alter based on these sub-genres of the superhero idea, the base is there.

And really, the idea of a superhero is pretty simple. So simple that most everyone understands the concept and the genre itself without needing any explanation. Yet superheroes are generally considered childish fantasies or something only for a fringe group of older fans of the characters. This is so extreme that it goes to the point where superheroes alone are the main reason why many people never give comics a chance as a medium, thinking its all ridiculous stories about people fighting crime while wearing tights. Its hard to fault this point of view, but it brings me to a thought that has been on my mind for a while now that I wanted to address.

It has been said many times by people much smarter than I that Superman, Spider-Man, and all the other heroes are the modern equivalents of the classic mythical heroes like Hercules and Perseus. That singular, powerful hero with abilities beyond the normal human, be it in intelligence or actual powers, who comes to save the day for the mortals. While the dressings are different, the core is the same. These classic stories aren't just for kids or some select group, and neither should superheroes. Sure, kids SHOULD have comics for them, and that's a problem all in its own, but the very idea isn't exclusively limited to an age group.

In fact, there is another modern equivalence to all of this that really only removes the tights from the equation: the action hero. Die Hard, Rambo, Predator, the James Bond movies, the Indiana Jones movies, and countless more present characters that are, essentially, superheroes. They are idealized humans in various ways that, in almost all cases, at the very least have the power to take insane punishments and keep fighting. Strip away many of the dressings and here, again, we have mythical heroes of a modern time.

All of these characters, from Hercules to Spider-Man to James Bond, are ingrained in our culture at a very deep level. But if there is so much similarity here, is it really something as simple as tights and powers that hold superheroes back still?


But then again, maybe not.

All of these archetypes of heroes have their own specific uniforms, just some are more innocuous than others. James Bond has his tuxedo and gadgets, Indiana Jones his fedora and bullwhip, Perseus has his polished shield and helm of darkness, and Batman his tights and utility belt. Signature identifying pieces of all these characters and they all tend to share a great deal with one another. But these days, we tend to accept the action hero with normal clothes and a gun, with the amazing power to never be shot unless its dramatically appropriate, over someone with bulletproof skin, saying that the latter is somehow more of a childish fantasy.

It isn't, of course. They're both equally ridiculous, and that's really what I've been working my way around constantly here. Not only that, but it isn't necessarily something that will always remain so. Trends and cultural ideas have a habit of changing, and the rise of superheroes in movies seems to be pushing them into a more accepted cultural place. Obviously, I think this is a very good thing. There is much more to many superheroes than the fact that they just punch bad guys, a strong contrast to most modern action heroes that...well, just shoot bad guys.

The real hope I have behind all of this, which I think is the hope of most any sane person that enjoys superheroes, is that the rise of superhero movies does help turn more to the comics. There is something for everyone in the medium, kids and adults alike, and even if a person swears they hate superheroes...there's a chance they might just not have found the right one yet.