Don’t bother putting on airs, Messrs. Man (Super and Bat); you’re nothing special, not any more. These days, you’re just two more members of a rather large club that includes cowboys, cops, private eyes, combat soldiers and guys who fly space ships to other planets and solar systems and galaxies. Serial killers who slice and dice sexy teenagers are in the club, too. And critters that are normally harmless but mutate into gigantic sociopaths.
While you weren’t looking, you’ve become a genre.
Of course, if we want to get sniffy about definitions, you always were, in comic books. Almost from the beginning, here were cowboy comics and detective (or Detective) comics, and monsters and spaceship jockeys were early joiners, too. And you guys, the superheroes. You were the most popular and emblematic, of the comic book good guys, but you had peers.
Movies were another matter. Oh, you guys showed up on what was called The Silver Screen pretty early in the form of serials or, if we want to get fancy, chapter plays intended for the Saturday matinees, which were populated by kids who, in my memory, made a hell of a lot of racket. Even there, you were a bit of an aberration, outnumbered by the gumshoes and gunfighters, and not deserving, apparently, of cinematic and dramatic niceties. And, while there were cowboys and sleuths aplenty in the movies made for after-dark showings to the kids’ moms and dads, no superheroes ever made the leap to, ahem, serious entertainments.
In days of yore – my yore anyway – I briefly wondered if my particular literary backwater, the writing of comic books, would be properly remembered. It seemed to me that young snots such as myself were getting attention – interviews and the like – and the guys who were around at the beginning, the guys who virtually created the form, were pretty much ignored, although many of them were still alive and frisky.
I needn’t have worried and I didn’t, which is good because, even more than most worry, this variety would have been a waste of time.
I do wish there had been more interviews with…oh, to cite the first name that pops into the shopworn old psyche, Bill Everett. And I don’t remember ever reading a Q and A with Carl Burgos: if none exists, too bad. Even Bill Finger doesn’t seem to have left many historical footprints, and some of what we know about him comes from people like me, whose memories are emphatically not to be trusted.
Having said all that: comics are undoubtedly the most documented medium/art form in history. They came to their early maturity just in time to benefit from the explosion of media and distribution, and the belated realization that every art form was pop culture once, and none are prima facie inferior. And guys like Gerry Jones know how to use the information sources available and have the patience and literary skill to put the pieces together.
Once again, the other day, I found myself wishing I’d spent less of my youth with, as folks might have said back then, my nose buried in some silly book and more time in the company of hammers, saws, wrenches. You know. Manly stuff. Tools. The reason was, something in the bathtub wasn’t working and we had to call the plumber, who is one of the nicest guys I know and might be the best plumber in Rockland County New York, and we had a chat while the water was running to accomplish something arcane and, well, plumberish. If I hadn’t wasted my youth, maybe I could tell you what.
Anyway: because he knows what I did and sometimes still do to earn money, we discussed movies and television. He’s of the opinion that nobody in the media has any new ideas.
I didn’t argue, and I won’t. With a few reservations, and looking at the evidence, I agree, kind of.
Of course, one could assert that there are no new ideas, an assertion borne out by the fact that treatise after treatise has demonstrated that there are only seven plots, or five, or eleven – some very finite number, in any case. But even given that near = truism, there doesn’t seem to be a lot that’s genuinely fresh around these days.
For instance: As I type this, I’m about two hours away from experiencing the latest incarnation of Knight Rider. Twenty-plus years ago, this saga of a young man and his talking car launched the career of David Hasselhoff, who later became world-famous as the tanned and buff father figure to a lot of equally tanned and buff, but younger, lifeguards. This is the latest of a seemingly endless catalogue of old films and TV shows revamped for the Twenty First Century. Some I’ve liked; the remake of the old Glenn Ford western, 3:10 to Yuma, was, by any reasonable criterion, a good movie. Others…well…
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Denny’s column normally runs on Tuesdays, which is great because Denny e-mails it to me on Sundays. For some reason – and for the second or third time – his various e-mail accounts don’t seem to like my various e-mail accounts. We think we’ve straightened it out. Go figure. If computers were cars, we’d all be riding horses.
And now, Mr. O’Neil… -MG]
While I was sort of half-watching the two Lost specials our pals at ABC television were treating us to recently, I recalled the hot new trend of a couple of years ago. Serialized stories. Nothing resolved until late in the season. They came and they went, those shows, though there are a few survivors, of which my favorite, and apparently the favorite of millions of my fellow citizens (including you?) is the aforementioned Lost.
The purpose of the specials, which ran on consecutive evenings, was ostensibly to remind the Faithful of what’s been happening to those funsters on the island, and to clue in the non-Faithful, like me, people who just watch the thing for an hour’s easy amusement, as to what the hell the continuity is. (Another reason for the specials might have been the writer’s strike, now settled; clip shows like these eat up airtime at little cost and need no new material. Or am I being cynical?)
And the Screen Writers Guild lurches into a tenth week and if there’s any end in sight, I haven’t heard about it.
Last time, I mentioned the Academy of Comic Book Arts and its failure to do any significant negotiating on behalf of its members. ACBA wasn’t the first attempt, though, to organize those glorious mavericks, the comic book community. In the 60s…
Wait! Better issue a warning before I go further. Do not regard anything that follows as gospel. (In fact, you might consider not regarding the Gospel as gospel, but let us not digress.) I have no reason not to believe what I’m about to tell you except one: About a year before he died, Arnold Drake, who was a busy comic book writer at the time we’ll be discussing, told me that the story I had wasn’t the whole story, or even necessarily accurate. I don’t know why I didn’t press him for further information, but I didn’t.
The television and movie Writers Guild strike lurches into its ninth week. If it goes on much longer, we may be doomed to even more staged “reality” and contest shows. Might be a good time to rekindle a book reading habit.
I’ve heard grumbling from folk who work that side of the street to the effect that the strike could have been better managed. Although I’m technically a member of the Guild, I don’t have an opinion – about the strike, that is. Two years ago, I was told that since I hadn’t done any United States television work for a decade, I was being put on retired status, which means, I think, that I can still benefit from the Guild’s services, but I don’t have to pay dues or have my mail box filled with notices of seminars and other industry events.
All fine with me.
About the Guild, as separate from the strike, I do have an opinion. I think the Guild is a noble organization, one that does exactly what a union should do, and no more. It collectively bargains, it protects members’ rights; it offers education and retirement benefits. And membership costs are more than reasonable. The current disagreement is over whether/how much writers should benefit from ancillary use of their stuff, mostly new media and computer related. I can imagine no sane reason why writers should not get such benefits, but I admit to bias.
I’m sure that within easy walk of where I’m sitting, there are people who are wishing they’d done something else last night. The wages of sin are, indeed, death — death is the wages of everything, sooner or later — but sin can have some more immediate wages in the forms of headaches, sick stomachs, dry-mouth. The self-inflicted results of having a good ol’ time.
In Times Square, poor devils who work for the New York City sanitation department are busy cleaning up the detritus from the annual big hoo-hah. Watching it on television was like glimpsing purgatory: crowds and noise and chaos — not my idea of fun anymore, if it ever was. But the would-be poet in me is responding to the chilly, soaking sanitation men symbolize: get rid of the old to accommodate the new. Yeah, ‘t’was ever thus, but we resist the notion, which is really an incarnation of the inevitable, particularly in our national politics.
Given the kinds of things the candidates spend most of their energies fussing over, it would seem that we’ve learned nothing in the past seven years.
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.