Saturday, March 20, 2004

What defines the superhero genre? (And what doesn't?) 

Fanboy Rampage points out this thread on Millarworld, a Q&A session with Warren Ellis that's been going on for a little while now and is a pretty damn fascinating read. I'll reprint what I think is the most intriguing part, for your enjoyment:

Marc-Oliver Frisch: All right, I'll try to make up for that misfired attempt at humor that made a ruckus got me tarred and feathered earlier (though I was oddly aroused by Lauren) with a question for Warren, if he won't mind:

What defines a "superhero comic" for you?

I mean, it's obvious that something like AVENGERS or SUPERMAN is superheroes, but how about PLANETARY or THE INVISIBLES, for example? Or TRANSMETROPOLITAN?

I remember a column by Joe Casey several years ago ("Joe Casey's Crash Comments," I think they were called) in which Casey discussed that question, suggesting that Spider Jerusalem is a "superhero," in a sense, because -- and I'm doing this from memory, so please take it with a big grain of salt -- he has a distinctive "costume" and does stuff that could be considered heroic. Now, while I think that's a bit extreme, I can certainly see where he was coming from.

So when you refer to superhero books, which kinds of titles do you mean? Only the straightforward, colorful costumes kind of thingies like JLA or X-MEN, the more recent variations like POWERS or WILDCATS, or is your definition even wider than that?

Warren Ellis: Well, as you've guessed, Joe's definition is way too broad.

Let's say superhero fiction is defined by a handful of elements, which you can term the topoi -- the place, settings, catalogue of an argument. It's a crude benchtest -- if the topoi map onto the comic, it's a superhero book. In fact, if elements of the topoi deliberately do not map onto the comic, the declaration can still hold true. Those are sometimes called the enthymemes -- the relevant premise that is left to be understood by the reader. Joe's own Jack Marlowe in WILDCATS 3.0 doesn't wear a costume, but is still a superhero -- he doesn't wear a costume because he has determined that a business suit is a better uniform in which to achieve his agenda. Jenny Sparks doesn't wear a costume because she doesn't think she has the rack to carry one off.

What Joe lets slide by in his argument is the basic set of demands visual fiction makes. By his definition, Columbo is a superhero. Jon and Ponch from CHiPS are superheroes. Barney is a superhero.

Visual fiction, particularly character-driven visual fiction, demands that we recognise the protagonist easily. That's why we put them in distinctive clothes.

Spider Jerusalem comes without a secret identity -- nor a specific contextual or subtextual reason for being without a secret identity. Spider comes without special abilities, nor special skills or devices developed to serve the same needs as special abilities. He comes without a costume or other disguise, nor is there a reason why he would have one. You can fill in the rest, I'm sure.

(And, for the smartarses, Judge Dredd wears not a costume but a uniform, a uniform shared by the other million cops in Mega-City One.)

Obviously, edges blur. Edges are often blurred deliberately. Grant was blurring a few edges in the early parts of THE INVISIBLES -- but no, I don't see it as a superhero book. PLANETARY, however, is pretty clearly a superhero book. Elijah Snow even had a secret identity. So secret that even he didn't know what it was. Jakita Wagner, too, has a "secret identity" she's utterly unaware of. Riffs off the topoi.

Does that get you any closer, or am I totally full of crap at this point?

-- W

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