Little Ditty About Danny and Fred, by Dennis O’Neil
Danny and Fred were the last two kids in their grade to still believe in Santa Claus.
Danny and Fred were the last two kids in their grade to still believe in Santa Claus.
Maybe we ought to retire the word “hero” and designate the characters whose needs and actions drive the story, more technically and accurately, as “the protagonist.”
(You’ve guessed that we’re continuing our incredibly prolonged discussion of the evolution of superheroes? Good.)
As mentioned in an earlier installment of this blather, the word “hero” is derived from the Greek and means, roughly, “to protect and serve.” (Lest anyone think I’m a scholarly dude who actually knows Greek…I wish!) The problem nowadays is defining exactly how the protection and service is to be accomplished. In other words, what kind of person do you admire, and why do they do what they do? Who do you favor mor e– Mother Theresa or the late Colonel David Hackworth, our most decorated combat veteran?
I never met the good nun, but I did spend an hour or so with Colonel Hackworth once and liked him very much. I don’t think I would have enjoyed Theresa’s company a whole lot. But maybe she was the more heroic of the two, if we count heroism as doing deeds that take courage and accomplish long-term good. Going out every day to deal with disease and poverty…it must have taken guts and it can’t have been easy. Easier than facing enemy guns? I have no idea what measurement we can use to quantify such things. Maybe there is none.
Col. Hackworth did what he did repeatedly and must have often known what he was getting into and, presumably, chose to do it anyway. But I’m wary of heaping too many accolades on folk who, in a military situation, do one brave thing because…
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..
In my dotage, I’m coming to believe that a little adolescent rebellion is usually a good thing, and if the rebellion creeps a year or two into full, card-carrying adulthood, that’s okay. Much after the fact, I learned of some things my kid did in his Greenwich Village youth: I’m not sorry he did them and I’m glad I didn’t know of them until much later.
(As for myself…let me note that the principal of my high school told my mother after graduation that they never, ever wanted to see me again. I must have done something…)
Father does not always know best and either does Mother. Like generals, they’re fighting old wars and kids are caught in new wars, which means the kids have to find their own way, which is a process of experimentation, which means that Junior and Pops can’t and shouldn’t march in lock step,
We will now retire the military metaphors and explain what any of this has to do with our current topic, the evolution of superheroes.
So where we at? For the past month or so, we have, in a scattershot and disorganized way, been discussing the various elements involved in the evolution of superheroes. I don’t think we’ve come to any conclusions worthy of being preserved for the ages, nor should we: things change, darnit. But maybe a little tentative upsumming would not be inappropriate.
Haberdashery: There is currently a trend away from putting superdoers in costumes, though the big bucks movie heroes are still wearing the suits and, judging from the films I know about that are in development, this will not change in the foreseeable future. But most entertainment consumers — I’m excepting comics fans here — get their heroism, super and otherwise, from television and maybe because of tv production hassles, costumes aren’t common.
Powers: We’ve agreed (haven’t we?) that for a long time the superbeings of mythology and folklore got their powers from some supernatural agency: they were gods, or demi-gods, or friends of ol’ Olympus, or something. Or they were agencies of darkness — black magicians of one kind or another. Then science became the rationale, most famously with Jerry Siegel’s extraterrestrial origin of Superman. Last, and decidedly least, there was technology allowing the good guy to do his stuff. And now…well, it’s anything goes time. Look at the current television offerings: we have a superhero private eye whose abilities are due to his vampirism, which we can call magic; a technology-enabled superhero(ine); and a whole bunch of peripatetic whose gifts have “scientific” explanations, or so it currently seems.
To…oh, say, King Arthur, if he ever existed, you would have superpowers. I mean, look at you. You can travel 100 miles an hour (but that red light flashing in your rearview mirror can’t be good) and you can cause a blank pane of glass to light up and show you what’s happening on he other side of the world, or what happened last week, or both, and you can twist your wrist and cause flame to appear atop that table-thing in the kitchen, with no protracted fussing with flint and stone… To Arthur, it would appear that you’re employing magic.
Living when he did, Art never read another Arthur’s observation that any form of technology sufficiently advanced would appear to be magic, at least to lumps like us. (I refer to Arthur C. Clarke, but you knew that…) So Arthur, (the king, not the science fiction writer) might watch you doing your stuff and conclude that you must be magic and because you’re magic you must be special. He wouldn’t know that you bought your powers, at a discount, at that big, ugly mall about a mile west on the freeway.
Remember, he had a special sword, Excalibur, and he had it because he deserved to have it. And so it was with other talismans, amulets, and assorted weapons and mystic hoo-haws that super good guys got hold of during their adventures down through the ages.
Which brings us to Tony Stark.
So you wanna be a superhero. Okay, where are your powers going to come from?
For years – nay, hundreds of years; nay, thousands of years – the brief answer was: From out there. Somewhere. The first superbeings in popular culture (the only kind there was, back then) were either gods, or pals of gods, or imbued with magical abilities, the origins of which weren’t necessarily clear or important. What was important was…wow! – look at what he/she/it can do! And so much the better if it, whatever spectacular thing it is, is being done for reasons I approve of.
That’s still what’s important. But our minds seem to be wired to want reasons for what we see, which is certainly why there’s science and may be why there’s art and civilization. But, oddly, once a reason is supplied, many of seem to be satisfied and require nothing further. The great cosmic snortlefish created the oceans? Swell, now I know why there’s all that water and what’s for dinner?
By the time Jerry Siegel got around to thinking up Superman in the summer of 1934, magic wasn’t terribly fashionable and it had long since become divorced from religion. But science…ah, science was going to deliver us and besides, it was real. And Jerry was a reader of science fiction, which, in those happy days, at least claimed to be rooted in physics and chemistry and astronomy and stuff like that. So it was natural, maybe inevitable, that he would give his übermensch a science rationale. Guy comes from another planet, sure – that’d be why he could be so powerful. Makes sense. Made sense to Jerry in 1934, probably would have made sense to me when I was the age Jerry was when he created Superman, if I’d thought about it.
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.)
Did I scare you?
About that boo…Frankly, it’s a sleazy and probably ineffective way to get your attention. But it is sort of appropriate because it’s a word often encountered in late October and I’m perpetrating this opus a few nights before Halloween, which seems like an appropriate time to be both booing and writing about comics. Because, you know, comics and Halloween are kissing cousins.
Comics, like Halloween, often deal with unearthly phenomena and unlikely characters and, yes, costumes. Both comics and Halloween offer reassurance that after sojourn spent confronting ghouls, goblins, ghosts, vice-presidents and assorted other hellish manifestations of ghastliness, you can retire to someplace comfy and safe.
Fairy tales do that, too, and despite people, including me, frequently comparing comics to mythology, they’re at least as much fairy tale as myth. They don’t, after all, offer cosmic explanations of why we’re here and where we come from, as myths are wont to do, and they almost always end happily. According to a psychologist named Bruno Bettelheim, those happy endings are what make fairy tales useful to little kids. The message is, you can confront ghouls, goblins, ghosts and even vice presidents and you can prevail – you can go home again and maybe score some hot chocolate.
There may be some practical reasons why the grown-for-television superheroes dress in plain clothes rather than the colorful garb of their comic book and movie counterparts.
(For those of you who came in late: we’re continuing last week’s discussion of superhero costumes.)
I remember visiting the set of one of Joel Schumacher’s Batman flicks and watching costumers take a long, long time – 15 minutes? More? – just to fit Batman’s mask on a stunt man, a process that involved putting plastic wrap on the guy’s head and then trimming it after the mask was in place. And that was just the mask. Imagine what efforts went into getting tights, cape, boots and all to fit properly. Dash into a closet – a phone booth? – for a quick change? Maybe not.
Though I have no firsthand knowledge of this, I understand that there is actually a closetful of batsuits for the actor and his various doubles; which one gets worn in a particular scene depends on the scene’s content. Are we fighting? Running? Driving our spiffy car? Standing dramatically silhouetted against the skyline? We must wear the appropriate outfit!
Subtract all this time, effort and expense from the task of garbing your good guy and you have…what? Well, have a look at either of the Batman movie serials made in the 40s for your answer. The Superman and Captain Marvel suits from that era are better, but they don’t approach the panache of the average Curt Swan or Jack Kirby drawing.