The Evolution of the Superhero, by Dennis O’Neil
And on we plod, continuing our seemingly interminable discussion of the evolution of superheroes. This week, let’s leave the capes and masks and other such accoutrements, and the “super” prefix, in the trunk and concentrate on the hero part.
First, a little oversimplification.
Heroes come in two models: the authority-sanctioned kind, as embodied by King Arthur’s posse, Beowulf, and James Bond, to cite just three of many possible examples, and the loners – the cowboys, the private eyes and, yes, most superdoers.
Conventional wisdom has it that the first kind were dominant throughout most storytelling history – were, in fact, integral to the “monomyth” described by Joseph Campbell. Again oversimplifying: ultimately, the result of all the hero’s roving and adventuring was benefit to his community. And, bowing once more to conventional wisdom, the second kind, the loners, became prominent after the First (don’t we wish!) World War when belief in the essential goodness and wisdom of humanity’s leaders became…well, challenging.
I dunno…the cowboy archetype was well-established before the war broke out in 1914, and it, in some ways, was the model for the private eyes and other rogue justice-dealers. I guess you could argue that the defining event of America’s nineteenth century, the Civil War, made the citizenry wary of Authority, and that wariness grew for maybe a hundred years as media technology made our immediate ancestors aware that if a person was in the market for some really ripe corruption, the statehouse was the place to look..
Anyway: the French, those non-Iraq-war-supporting bastards, saw that the private eyes and such related characters as the Shadow and Doc Savage were pop culture’s existentialists (though I doubt that the pulp writers were thinking Philosophy as they raced their deadlines): in a universe that is essentially absurd, in a civilization in which civic leaders are not to be trusted, an individual has to create his own meaning which involves, among other things, creating a personal code of behavior and then, by golly, sticking to it! He other option is to choose None Of The Above and obey the commandments of a religious or quasi-religious organization. (Are you running with me, Tom Cruise and Mel Gibson?)
But with the odd, rare exception – Chesterton’s Father Brown comes to mind – religion never got into adventure plots, at least not overtly. Why? Once more: hey, I’m just asking the questions. A possible, sketchy, partial answer might have to do with certain practical considerations, such as: not wanting to alienate all the Protestants in one’s readership by making your intrepid righter-of-wrongs Catholic or (horrors!) Jewish. (The late John D. MacDonald was a master of this non-specificity: he would give readers so much incidental information about his hero – his choice in drink, food, exercise, tools – that you may never realize that we never learn the guy’s ethnicity, religion, politics, where he comes from, his age, the identities of his family…you know, the small stuff.)
Okay, now let’s take those costumes out of the trunk and ask final questions: who wears them and why? Heroes, by definition, stand for something. What?
Could it be that we admire them just because they’re winners?
RECOMMENDED READING: Mark Twain, by Ron Powers. An excellent bio of the quintessential American writer who, incidentally, has a comedy on Broadway.
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