Monday, January 03, 2011

Suprmetrics 2: What Do Superheroes Do?

Recently in this blog I've been keeping up with reviews okay but haven't been doing many other articles. Ideally I'd like to do one or two other articles every month. Not sure that I will, but I'd like to.

Also I'd like to mention that I may be shifting my review schedule a bit. It's been my policy to try to review every Legion comic on the day that it comes out. I have another writing project* I'd like to devote more time to, though, and one way to make that easy for me might be to shift the comic reviews to the first weekend after the comic comes out. I haven't entirely decided yet, and I'm probably not going to make a rule for myself, but if a Legion comic hits the streets and you don't see a review here that Wednesday evening, it may be because I've decided to do it Saturday instead.

Anyway, I was about to write another entry of The Legionnaires, and I figured out a way to introduce it, and then I realized that my introduction should be a post on its own. This is that post.

One of the things I like to pretend this blog is for is to break down superheroes and the superhero genre. I'm curious about that stuff. Not only do I have a lot of affection for superheroes, but they're about as odd a cultural artifact as you could ask for, and so I think that anything we can figure out about them is worth it.

I don't imagine that what I'm about to say is going to be revolutionary or insightful or anything. Actually I think it'll be elementary and obvious. But I'd still like to do it because I don't recall it having been said before, and it's the things that go without saying that should be said the most carefully.

One way we can look at superheroes is in terms of what they do. What do superheroes do?

We can break the job of "superhero" down into a list of other jobs. Not all of these will apply to all characters (which is part of what makes it interesting). In alphabetical order, with shorthand codes in brackets at the end:

-Bodyguard. Self-explanatory. Rare, but it does happen. (BG)
-Celebrity. Like Booster Gold used to try to be. Anytime a superhero shows up at a parade or cuts a ribbon at a mall opening or whatever, she's acting in the role of celebrity-superhero.(CL)
-Detective. Detective-superheroes investigate mundane or partially mundane crimes that have already happened. (DC)
-Diplomat. Includes first contact with alien races. (DP)
-Explorer. Self-explanatory. Includes outer-space exploration, undersea, lost worlds, other dimensions, microverses, time travel... (EX)
-Policeman. Not exactly the same as "detective"; a policeman-superhero is one who stops mundane crimes as they're happening. (PC)
-Rescue Worker. Rescues people from disasters, whether man-made or natural, and may help to fix the disaster itself. (RW)
-Role Model. This is a bit of a vague one, but I think it belongs. When a superhero makes a public appearance to inspire kids, or acts as a community leader, he's acting as a role-model-superhero. Examples: the Detroit-era Justice League, 'Mazing Man, Meteor Man. (RM)
-Scientist. Not that the science itself is that superheroic, but it often provides technology or discoveries helpful in the superhero's other roles. Also, there's often an overlap between "scientist" and "explorer". (SC)
-Soldier. Superheroics do occasionally overlap with military operations, as in the case of an alien invasion, or like with the Invaders or All-Star Squadron. (SO)
-Spy. Really this is just here to reflect that often superheroes have to be stealthy and sneaky and not so much fighty. They hardly ever work as actual spies. (SP)
-Warrior. Fighting monsters, giant robots, powerful supervillains, or other superheroes is the work of a warrior. (WA)

Here are some jobs that are specifically not part of being a superhero:

-Judge. Pronouncing a person guilty of a crime, sentencing him, and executing that sentence. (JG)
-Social Activist. Transforming society in potentially unwelcome ways. (SA)

I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that I left some stuff off of these lists; if you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments and I'll work them into the article if I agree.

I think that when people don't like some particular take on a superhero, it's because of an issue with these roles. The threeboot Legion? SA is on the Don't list. Superman Returns? Not enough WA. I think Kingdom Come came about because of an industry-wide overemphasis on the WA role and an underemphasis on everything else.

In fact, Superman is a good touchstone for this idea. Anything that a superhero might do, we can ask the question, would Superman do this? If he would, it's an appropriate superheroic activity. If not, not. Look at the SA role: when Superman was first created, he did do some SA-type stuff, where he fought for the little guy and stuck it to the man and what have you. But somehow it was decided that that didn't really fit the idea of the character, and now the SA role is not part of superheroics. (Which is not to say that the threeboot Legion aren't superheroes! Of course they are. They're superheroes and social activists.

But we can see the Legion all over that list. They're always being dragged into jobs where they have to be DPs or RWs or BGs. (Maybe there should be an Animal Control entry on there.) And it's granular: Brainiac 5, for instance, is the best suited Legionnaire for the SC role, but you wouldn't want him as a WA. You'd want Timber Wolf or someone. Mon-El prefers EX, although he's pretty good at SC and RW and WA and even SP. And so on. If we chose, we could go through a comic book and pick it apart based on what superheroic activities are present: LSHv7 #10: page 1-7, RW; page 10-11 WA, page 17-20 PC. Collect enough data like that and we could get a pretty good idea of how different writers see their characters, or how they see superheroics in general.

Again, I don't pretend that any of this is profound. But I hope now that it's explicit and that we have a bit more of a vocabulary to talk about it, maybe that'll help us come up with something that's a little more profound later on.


* I don't want to give details on this writing project until I actually, you know, get something done. I've made a good start, but that's not enough. When I have something real to tell you, rest assured that you won't be able to shut me up about it.

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Blogger Meerkatdon said...

Actually, I think this was very insightful and useful. Boiling things down to simple parts, and defining terminology -- both are essential steps for useful analysis.

I'm going to have to give more thought, but it's interesting how J. Michael Straczynksi's recent Superman arc has, in some ways, raised Superman's SA role.

8:58 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Thanks. I haven't been reading it, but is that what he's doing? It's not more of an EX or RM?

9:58 PM  
Anonymous Rob said...

Agree with Meerkatdon. An interesting piece - and I can see it will be a useful categorisation scheme for dissecting future (and past) issues.

It's always a lot easier for critics to tear an argument down than for someone to write an argument in the first place. Thank you for trying to add something new to the world of superheroic analysis and commentary.

5:49 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Thanks very much.

8:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Judge and Social Activist applies to some superheroes at least some of the time.The Spectre certainly acts as judge as well as executioner.The Punisher,too. There's an element of judgement in the very idea of superheroes,as well as Social Activism. After all,SAs don't see themselves as destroying society but trying to improve it.People become superheros for much the same reason.
The longer a superhero stays on the job,the more jobs on your list they try to take on.Batman has been thru every job on that list,even doing an EX stint in the 1950s.Not every job fits,of course: Batman's EX peroid is generally considered one of his weakest.Even a job that fits may not amount to much;the Wally West Flash started out as a CL but no one could do much with that,so it was ignored after a while.
A very comprehensive list you've made here,proving that superheroes are the ultimate multi-taskers.

4:57 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I'll have to respond to this later; there's a section of Peter Coogan's book that I want to cite in support. I'm sure you're right about the Spectre, but let's face it; the Spectre is kind of only just barely a superhero in some ways, and I could see myself maybe saying the same thing about the Punisher although I've never actually read a Punisher comic.

11:17 PM  

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