Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny, by Dennis O’Neil
Before we get to this week’s official topic, a continuation of our discussion of how superheroes have been evolving, I’d like to remind you all that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. I’m sure all you fans of the late 19th century biologist Ernst Haeckel – and I know you’re legion – remember that this means that the development of an organism exactly mirrors the evolutionary development of the species.
Okay, now that that’s settled…consider any given story genre the organism and storytelling as a whole the species. The first stories, maybe told around campfires, were not long on characterization. According to some anthropologists, they were basically religious, an effort to give an identity to the forces that shaped people’s lives, the forces they were already acknowledging, maybe, with rituals. Not much characterization in these yarns. They were more about what happened – some deity decides to create the world – than the nuances of the protagonists’ personalities. As storytelling evolved, from an element of religion to entertainment, the characters began to have personalities, sort of, until by the time Homer smote ‘is bloomin’ lyre the good guys and bad guys were acting for reasons peculiar to who they were. And by the time of Greek drama, which, again, was part of religious festivals, they were pretty individualized.
Shoot forward about 2,500 years…Along came comic book superheroes (as opposed to all the other kinds of superdoers, who are a bit outside our boundaries, though I’m sure they’re very nice) and…well, they weren’t quite as uncharacterized as those campfire deities. But we do find ontogeny-recapitulating phylogeny, sort of. Clark Kent was, after all, “mild mannered” and Lois Lane was ambitious, but the stories were plot driven – the stuff was more about what the heroes did rather than why they did it. (Batman comes close to being an exception; a few issues into his initial run in Detective Comics, writer Bill Finger actually motivated him. But unless there are a lot of stories I haven’t read, the emphasis on what makes Bruce Wayne tick came later.)
And, again judging just by what’s in those old, brittle, yellowing comic books, the editors, at least, weren’t concerned with character, and so it wasn’t consistent – there apparently was no effort to make it consistent. I imagine that the individual writers concerned themselves with plot and felt that giving the guy in the costume the personality of a generic boy scout was all that was expected.
It is a long leap from the campfire deities to Joyce’s Leopold Bloom. It is a somewhat shorter leap from the Superman of 1938 to the S-chester who’s in your comic shop today, but the leap is similar in kind, if not in distance.
I think Stan Lee may have been the agent of this change. He gave his heroes differing speech patterns – suddenly there was slang in comic books! – and these reflected differing personalities. He probably wasn’t the first to do this – sometimes I think there’s never a first for anything – but he did it well and combined it with other tropes to popularize it and give us young ‘uns something to imitate.
More next week?
RECOMMENDED READING: Der Steppenwolf, by Herman Hesse.
Dennis O’Neil is an award-winning editor and writer of comic books like Batman, The Question, Iron Man, Green Lantern and/or Green Arrow, and The Shadow, as well as all kinds of novels, stories and articles. The Question: Zen and Violence is on sale right now in trade paperback.