UPDATED: Submissions Due Wednesday, September 24th
Earlier this year, I wrote about my experience meeting Mick Foley, my new found interest in professional wrestling, and my initial academic thoughts on professional wrestling and Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment in particular.
Since that time, I signed up for the WWE Network, the new online-only initiative recently launched by the WWE to serve as their “television network.” With the network, we can watch old matches, including the ECW and WCW shows, and we can watch the live pay-per-view extravaganzas as well as current shows like Main Event and NXT. We haven’t explored too much yet, but we have found it fun to have this huge library of content available.
Now, this post is not a plug for the network. From an academic angle, the existence of the network is interesting, although it may be doing more harm than good for the company at this time. What the presence of the network indicates is another example of what interests me about professional wrestling: the convergent nature of it.
After the event of this weekend, where normally we are only needing to remember our veterans but must now also remember those young men and women who died at the whim of a terrorist — of a misogynist extremist — I need to take a break from discussing fractured fandom and the sexist, and misogynist, tensions in geekdom to talk about something else.
We could argue that professional wrestling does its part to reflect and affirm the sexism of the world. Many have written about this topic, from the way the female wrestlers are portrayed to the overtly dominating and violent masculinities that are presented as ideal, as role models for young boys to emulate. And while it is hard to see a lingerie match and not think about this problem, or to watch the painful submissions wrestlers force each other into and wonder if the fans believe such is the way of life — while those are the very reasons I avoided and even derided professional wrestling for most of my life — I am not here to discuss such matters.
I am here because last year I saw the documentary For All Mankind: The Life and Career of Mick Foley and I decided I needed to get off my judgmental high horse and give this sports entertainment a chance. I decided to watch this documentary because I had seen Mick Foley on The Daily Show with John Stewart (such as here) and found him to be far more articulate and sensitive than I had considered possible of professional wrestlers, having grown up during the Hulk Hogan era. In the documentary, I was amazed to learn how much charity work Foley has done, and I further felt that he possessed the type of soul that I had not thought likely in those of his profession. Going further, learning about how he supports and advocates for women’s rights, gays’ rights, and a whole slew of causes important to me, just further endeared him to me. So much so that the highlight of my recent C2E2 convention was to have my picture taken with him.
And it is not just Foley who displays these rather progressive stances — especially given the stereotyped nature of the sport and its fans over the years. Both former superstar (and I am talking mega superstar) Stone Cold Steve Austin and current contender (and soon-to-be Marvel star) Dave “The Animal” Bautista have come out recently in support of gay marriage. Learning these things, learning about the men behind the masks and the hyper-muscularity, helped me turn around my thoughts on professional wrestling, to be willing to give it a chance. And my partner has been helping me learn the lingo (heels, faces, over, etc) while we discuss the hyperreal and socially constructive nature of the entertainment. I have found it to be a fun learning experience, and I no longer hold the judgments I once did.
All of that is to say that I come to this world relatively fresh, a wrestling newbie, with perhaps more of a scholarship angle than most wrestling viewers. And it was with this scholarship angle that I attended a panel at C2E2 featuring my man Foley discussing the overlaps between comic books and professional wrestling. He was joined on the panel by illustrator Jill Thompson, who has worked with Foley on his children’s books, and publisher Jim Salicrup of Papercutz.
One of the main overlaps the panel discussed was the focus on hyper-muscular characters in colorful costumes. This overlap was one my partner and I had repeatedly discussed (one the profession is quick to point out), and wrestlers have even utilized it in their performances, such as ECW’s Raven. There is the same focus in both media on very muscular — almost to the point of ludicrous – bodies that are covered, primarily, in skin-tight clothes emblazoned with colors and emblems that serve to identify the wrestlers to their fans in the same the way the superhero’s costume identifies the hero to its readers.
Beyond these basic aesthetic similarities, there are also overlaps in the narratives — or, more to the point, in the way narratives are utilized in the serial storytelling of both media. In essence, Foley and the others remarked how the same storylines happen over and over — that if you wait long enough, the audience will have forgotten a storyline, and it can be recycled. But as they are recycling storylines, the wrestlers on the one hand and the comic book writers on the other need to find ways to make them seem new, fresh, and compelling. So stories of sudden betrayal can take on a different feel depending on who is betraying who or what cause — whether it is in the ring or in the panels.
Another overlap includes the centrality of characters to the storytelling and entertainment. Fans fall in love with characters, have certain wrestlers or heroes that they look up to or despise, and then base much of their reaction to the stories on those characters, what happens to them, and how the characters handle themselves. Thus, for both wrestling and comics, the introduction or origin story for the characters are tremendously important to form those first impressions in the audience. And as the story progresses, having the right amount and kind of heat on the character, providing logical and emotional arcs of conflict and resolution, are necessary for sustaining audience interest. In both media, then, the storylines need to be good at character development.
What was interesting to me was to hear how much the wrestlers themselves have to be good at building and sustaining this character development. I had assumed, hearing how “wrestling is fake,” that the bouts inside the ring and everything outside of the ring were completely scripted. But in learning more about this world, you come to learn that the overarching storylines may be determined, and the winners of the bouts are known ahead of time behind the scenes (and sometimes in the online fan discussions). However, what happens in the ring to get to the end of the bout, and what the wrestlers may have to say and do to further the storyline, can be greatly up to the wrestlers to determine. This agency was seen dramatized in the film The Wrestler and has been discussed elsewhere, such as in this clip:
Foley grew up as a Hulk fan. He loved comics growing up and told us how he had a need to create heroes, which may be why he became a professional wrestler, although he did not realize the overlap until later. For Foley, until 1996, there was no scripting, no writers, that he had to listen to or rely upon to help him develop his characters and his wrestling style. There was just bookers, who helped him get from match to match. So he created and developed the characters, these heroes, on his own and always had to think for himself on the spot — and this need to be able to think quick and improvise continues to be a skill that the superstars have to rely upon. As he said on the panel, if a wrestler is not thinking for himself or herself, then that person will have less of a connection with the audience because he or she will not be good at sustaining characters and performances. Wrestlers who cannot improvise and perform lack the ability of negotiating and building authenticity with the audience — many of whom are very aware of the scripted aspects of the sport. Perhaps this ability to quickly think on his feet also explains why Foley currently tours the country with a stand-up comedy show.
Another interesting overlap between professional wrestling and comic books are the times when they literally overlap — when comics are made about or feature wrestlers. We can see this phenomenon going back to the early 1990s, when Valiant and Marvel comics had different deals with the then WWF (now WWE) to feature the WWF wrestlers in established or new series, with some being more successful than others. Currently, Super Genius, a subset of Papercutz, is releasing WWE Superstars, an alternate universe comic where the wrestlers are all versions of themselves, just not wrestlers (even though they know wrestling moves). The series is being written by Foley with his writing partner Shane Riches — hence the reason Foley was at C2E2. Another current title is independently produced Headlocked, which we also picked up at C2E2. Not focusing on any specific WWE superstar but on the art of professional wrestling, the comic does feature stories and art contributed from real wrestlers, such as Jerry “The King” Lawler — we totally got Lawler to autograph our copy.
What’s interesting is how these overlaps between wrestling and comics show not just a blending or crossover of media, but also a mashing of different genres and generic sensibilities. For example, Foley’s comic utilizes genre conventions from film noir while still showcasing these larger than life characters that are central to professional wrestling. And, in a sense, this completely works and is completely understandable, because on the basic level, that is what professional wrestling is all about — mashing genres together.
In the documentary released by the WWE for its 50th anniversary, some of the wrestlers and promoters interviewed discussed professional wrestling as combination of comedy, action, and suspense given how the characters and the storylines were constructed and presented — but we could also add superhero and melodrama to this mixture by commenting on the larger than life characters whose stories unfold in serialized, rather overly dramatic fashion in the course of days, months, and even years. In the special features for the film The Wrestler, there is a roundtable discussion interviewing former superstars like Rowdy Roddy Piper, Lex Luger, and Diamond Dallas Page. And while they promoted the film’s ability to show the reality through the construction, they likewise discussed the various genre elements that come into the production not just of a single bout but of an entire, years long feud.
Professional wrestling then is more than a sport — it is an entertainment form that layers onto the sport of wrestling the elements from fictional genres. Considering it from a reception theory perspective, professional wrestling is perhaps the most polysemic text in modern pop culture. With so many different layers of meaning due to the mashing of genres, the text offers audience members with highly variable preferences for their entertainment the possibility to find something of value. Additionally, the fans of the text have a different interaction, a different status, than the fans of “real sports.”
In other professional sports, the interaction between the fans and the athletes is there, but it is rarely seen and rarely important to the progression of the sporting matches except in key moments. For example, in American football, a home team can have advantage for its defense through crowd noise. In baseball, the fans can aid their teams by psyching out the umpire and the batter, thereby potentially giving their team an advantage in hits. However, this is no where near the same amount or type of interaction between individual athletes and fans as seen in WWE, and professional wrestling at large.
As mentioned, the wrestlers’ on the spot performance helps to determine whether or not they can connect with the fan and develop a successful character arc. If the fans are behind the wrestler — if the wrestler is over with them, in other words — then it can help to secure not only the storyline but the wrestler’s tenure within the industry. In the documentary on the history of the WWE, Chairman Vince McMahon basically said that they attend to the fans’ reactions to know what to do with a character and a storyline. In this way, the wrestling fan has input over the sporting and the entertainment aspects — if a wrestler is over with a crowd, then that wrestler may suddenly begin to win more matches, or to switch from heel to face.
All of this is to say that professional wrestling mashes together genres, reaches out to its fans, because it has to. There is no need to negotiate authenticity and legitimacy in “real sports” given its non-predetermined nature. Except for the rare cases when a match has been rigged, there is no way to know with 100% certainty what the outcome will be — even a sure win could be suddenly undone by an unforeseen injury. Such sports do not need to have layers of genre conventions or outreach and empowerment of fans because the main entertainment comes in the not knowing, in the unscripted competition, in the realness. In such sports, the art of the game or the match is in the athleticism and competition of the players, not in the narrative and aesthetics of the characters.
As mentioned at the C2E2 panel, there is an appreciation of both professional wrestling and comics as an art form in spite of their artifice. While we know someone writes and illustrates the battles of superheroes and supervillains, we do not base the comic book’s artistic value on its authenticity versus its artifice — there is no authenticity in superpowered beings battling for supremacy, no matter how realistically depicted (sorry, Christopher Nolan). We negotiate the meaning of such stories through what they do to us — how they make us think and feel — based on how we react to the narrative and aesthetics developed by the writers and the illustrators.
In professional wrestling, we negotiate meaning, and thus authenticity and legitimacy, in the say way. Once you realize that a match is predetermined, then you need to see the art of the match in terms of its narrative, aesthetics, and athletics. We come to love certain wrestlers over others through their stories, through their appearance, through their interaction with us, both inside and outside of the ring (many of these superstars are adept at Twitter and Facebook). Moreso, since these bouts and stories can be comic books brought to life, we can also appreciate the sport as we do other sports, through the athleticism of the wrestlers, which is for the most part very real (except sometimes less so, John Cena).
Once we learn and understand how the artifice produces professional wrestling, then we are left to negotiate what is authentic, legitimate, and meaningful about it by making these appraisals on the narrative, aesthetic, and athletic layers. How we determine what is the art of professional wrestling is a negotiation of the producer’s intention, what is in the text, and how the audience responds. And given the importance of those three layers, and the variety within each, there are many entry points and many points at which fans can defend professional wrestling as “yeah, it’s fake, but the story/appearance/ability of the wrestlers isn’t”. Once you have reached that point — once you have found the aspect of professional wrestling that aligns with your preferences for entertainment — then this genre mashing spectacle can be very compelling.
Take it from a new convert, and perhaps a new addict as well.
Report by CarrieLynn D. Reinhard, Roskilde University (March 6, 2009) of the Quantitative Results
(This paper was presented at the Danish scifi convention Fantasticon to discuss the nature of superheroes.)
A series of quantitative and qualitative questions were asked of individuals around the world on: whether or not certain characteristics defined superheroes; creating their own superheroes; speaking about the first and most famous superheroes; labeling a variety of characters as superheroes; speaking about the reality of superheroes and their cultural heritage.
This first phase of the analysis will provide frequency information on the closed-ended items from the survey: the definitions of superheroes; the recognition of characters as superheroes; and, the uses and perceptions of media from the United States.
The survey was advertised across different country specific Facebooks, from the United States to Japan, from South Africa to Sweden. Over a thousand people partially completed the online survey hosted by SurveyXact. Of this group, only the 112 who answered all the close-ended answers and provided a real country of origin were included in the analysis. The resulting distribution of respondents from around the world is as follows:
- Of the 112 participants, 26, or 23%, grew up in the United States.
- Of the 77%, or 86 participants, who did not grow up primarily in the United States, the breakdown of their birth countries shows an array of American, European, Asian, Middle Eastern, Oceanic, and African cultures.
- The average age of the participants was 28, with a range from 11 to 70. The vast majority of the participants were male (74%), with only 23% female, as several participants refused to indicate their gender.
The participants were asked to indicate how often they consumed on average in the past year various types of media produced by the United States: movies; television; comic books; video games; and, cartoons. The following table provides their answers for these five items, arranged in descending order of average consumption behavior.
Notice that movies, television and cartoons appear to be the primary media sources – and thus potential sources for exposure to superhero genre conventions – across the sample’s average consumption behaviors. Video games appear to split between those who play them regularly and those who do not. Finally, comic books appear to be the least consumed media amongst the participants.
Definitions of Superheroes
This first section relates the frequency of endorsing certain conventions as necessary for defining a character as a superhero. Eleven items were used in the survey; these items were based on a discussion by Peter Coogan as to what defines a superhero (Superhero: The secret origin of a genre, 2006).
Below is a table showing the percentages of people who agree or disagree or are not certain that the specific characteristic is necessary for defining a character as a superhero.
The most important characteristics agreed upon from various cultures are: Extraordinary Abilities; Serve Motivation; Origin Story; and, Strong Moral Code. These are the top four characteristics with the highest percentages of agreement for being necessary as part of the definition. Notice there is nothing about the appearance of the character. Instead, the actions of the character take precedence, as well as the inclusion of some type of origin story to explain how that character came to be.
Additionally, three of the characteristics could be said to elide with other genres; that is, they are not necessarily specific to the superhero genre. Apparently the inclusion of the Extraordinary Abilities, in combination with the remaining three, pushes this character into the superhero genre. The reason for the higher importance placed on the Origin Story is hypothesized below with regards to other results.
Following these top four characteristics, another four characteristics are similar enough in their endorsement by the sample as to be considered a secondary group of characteristics. These characteristics are: Original Costume; Supervillains; Secret Identity; Codename. These characteristics consist of the appearance of the character as well as conventions that are very specific to the superhero genre. And yet, their generic specificity is not highlighted as what makes them central to defining a character as a superhero. A possible reason for this is discussed next.
Towards the bottom of the list is the requirement for the character to be in some form of Fantastical Story. The lack of endorsement for this item may be due to the prevalence of the realism trend in superhero films that have been disseminated around the world since 2000. Unfortunately, I had not thought of asking specifically from where the sample knew their superheroes. However, the sample was more likely to watch American movies, television and cartoons than read American comic books. It appears the worldwide knowledge of superheroes has been more influenced by their moving portrayals rather than the comic book canon from which they arise.
The prevalence of the movies could also explain by the visual appearance of the superheroes was less important than his or her actions. Of course there remain visually iconic superheroes whose appearance is little changed from comic book to film (i.e. Superman, Batman, Spider-Man); but, there are also those figures whose appearance as changed (i.e. X-Men, Fantastic Four, Punisher). Also, movies, television and cartoons show moving pictures that allow for the portrayal of actions in a way that comic books cannot. A consumption of comic books may heighten the primacy of the visual depiction, whereas a consumption of moving portrayals may heighten the primacy of the actions.
Not tremendously surprising, Headquarters was listed towards the bottom of the list. Few superheroes actually have headquarters or bases of operations. What is most striking is perhaps the heightened lack of agreement that a superhero must wear tights and capes. This visual appearance has for so long been the points of reference made in parodies and satires of superheroes, from The Tick to The Incredibles. The fact that this characteristic is at the bottom of the list again serves to showcase the primacy of motion pictures and the realism slant taken in them.
Labeling as Superheroes
Participants were given a range of characters and asked to indicate if they believed the character was or was not a superhero. The range included established superheroes such as Superman and Spider-Man, as well as anti-heroes, classical heroes, and Japanese characters. What resulted was a gauge as to how well superheroes are known through being disseminated around the world, as well as how non-traditional superheroes are seen as relating to the superhero genre.
This range of characters are divided into four charts for reporting: DC characters; Marvel characters; Classical characters; and Japanese characters. One character that does not fit this categorization was Mr. Incredible, from the Pixar film. He rated high on the list, with 75% percent of the participants agreeing he is a superhero, with 15% unfamiliar with the character.
First, the DC characters:
Next, the Marvel characters:
As is apparent, these DC and Marvel characters are rather widely known across the world, with Thor the least recognized – although there is most likely confusion between the superhero and the Nordic god from mythology. Of the remaining characters, the ones with the highest unfamiliarity either have not had a motion picture (Captain America, Green Lantern, Aquaman, The Flash) or had a film that did not perform as strongly as hoped (Mr. Fantastic).
Next, the Anti-hero characters:
Of the anti-heroes most likely seen as superheroes, all four have had recent films and film franchises based on them. The least likely to be seen as a superhero, Swamp Thing, has been out of such mass media for over a decade, unlike the rest of the characters. Although Spawn, Punisher, Ghost Rider and Crow have all had motion pictures based on their comic book characters, none performed as well as the others. Interestingly, Silver Surfer was not that much lower than Mr. Fantastic in being called a superhero, and was perhaps slightly better known; this is perhaps due to Silver Surfer being in the name of the second Fantastic Four movie.
Next, classical characters:
Of the legendary characters, Hercules was seen more as a superhero, although like Thor there may be confusion between the demigod and the Marvel character. Beowulf was the least familiar of the characters. Of the pulp heroes, The Phantom was seen more as a superhero, followed by Zorro. While Tarzan was the most recognized, he was one of the least recognized as a superhero. The Shadow was the least recognized, but of those who were familiar with him he was seen more as a superhero.
Finally, Japanese characters:
Of the Japanese characters, the Power Rangers were the best known and the most seen as superheroes. According to the date, the older the character, the least well known the character was and the least seen as a superhero. Of the two remaining animated characters, they were both relatively well known and seen as superheroes, with Sailor Moon edging out Goku.
Across all the characters, the American characters classically defined as superheroes were seen as such, and the most well-known. The participants’ answers to defining superheroes could be based on their familiarity with these DC and Marvel characters, coming to them primarily via their movies, television shows and cartoons. Then, using these definitions, the participants may judge other characters, from the United States and other countries, as to whether or not they match the characteristics seen in the DC and Marvel characters.
However, the fact that non-traditional superheroes were also seen by some as superheroes indicates the looseness of the categorization scheme as applied to characters from various genres and cultures. This looseness could indicate the local culture’s and/or individuals appropriation of the genre conventions to their interpretation of other characters – from the reception to the creation of such characters.
The open-ended questions will be analyzed in a follow-up report to understand if such appropriation is being utilized by the participants in how they describe two generic characters as well as themselves as abiding by the superhero genre conventions. Additionally, their discussions about seeing superheroes as prototypically from the United States will be examined to see if their arguments about the dissemination and cultural/individual appropriation of superheroes mirror this report’s analysis.
As part of a project I am working on, I’m looking for examples of people outside of the United States appropriating and/or incorporating some aspect of the American superhero genre into their pop culture and everyday lives.
Here we have an example of a man in Cairo exploring what a superhero, in this case Spider-Man, would be like outside of the United States.
Examples could be people using American superhero characters and iconography in their creations, wardrobe, communication and more, such as this example of street art from Italy or this art installation in South Korea or these public communiques from Denmark:
Or the examples could be the creation of culturally or nationally specific characters that could be defined as superheroes, such as this French superhero show H-Man, Tiger and Bunny and Samurai Flamenco from Japan and Antboy from Denmark, as well as the ones pictured here.
And then there is this great appropriation of superhero conventions for an educational purpose out of Pakistan.
Even older superheroes can be appropriated Round the world for political and cultural redefinition, such as these uses of The Phantom that emerged in the mid part of the 20th century, or the uses of various characters as a form of political protest in Bulgaria.
Please share and tweet them with #superheroesaroundtheworld, or feel free to respond here with your ideas and examples.
Previously I have discussed the definition of superheroes, the international nature of superheroes, and the ability to consider superheroes from different legends and religions. In this post I share my thoughts on the ethical and moral nature of superheroes, on how we could consider them to be role models for our modern lives. The further question is should we consider them to be role models — should we be looking up to these characters, or are they merely there to placate us into non-action? That is a question to tackle another day (or on another site, such as Salon’s article on superheroes as fascists — or the counter-argument and better analysis at Badass Digest — or Everyday Feminism’s treatise on the state of superheroines).
Superheroes are representations of modern times in the United States as founded in the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Superheroes represent our hopes about the prospect of science and technology for progression of humanity. Superheroes, born in the struggles of the early 20th Century, can be seen to embody the morality and ethics espoused by the Enlightenment — the philosophical Age of Reason in which ideas of science, rationality, and egalitarianism flourished in the Western world. During this time, there was great belief in Reason & Rationality, Science & Technology, Democracy & Capitalism, Freedom & Tolerance, Gaining Enlightenment, Understanding through Scientific Method, and the Proper Application of Technology.
In a sense, the Enlightenment’s morals helped to set the foundation for the Industrial Revolution that would follow. The Industrial Revolution permitted advances and concentrations of power through science and technology, such that in the early 20th Century as science and technology were perceived as being the method for success for the United States. These beliefs in science and technology can be found in the literature of the time, with the rise of science fiction through the works of H.G. Wells, Jules Vernes, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs. Through the spread of science fiction into various facets of what was becoming pop culture: “Amazing Stories”, comic strips, radio serial adventures, and pulp fiction heroes. In these fictions, science and technology were causing problems that were best solved through science and technology.
The morality and ethics of superheroes, and their ability to be role models, come from how they embody and symbolize the hopes we have for science and technology. Through their origin stories, their struggles with supervillains, and their struggles with themselves, these superheroes model a rational way to engage with each other and act towards the common good of humanity. With so much of their identity focused on science and technology, they can serve as role models for how we should be in this modern world that is itself so focused on science and technology.
Superman is a Kryptonian, brought to Earth through alien interstellar travel, and made powerful as his alien physiology interacts with our world and our yellow sun. Ms. Marvel, now Captain Marvel, gained her powers from an alien Kree, as the Kree’s technology modified her very essence, somewhat making her half-alien. Here are those superheroes whose origins come from alien powers, where some civilization’s advanced science and technology is brought to Earth for the benefit of humanity. We may even consider such science and technology to be magical, but in essence magic is just science and technology we do not yet understand.
Here we have Vision and Red Tornado, two androids built or bestowed with special gifts. In the Marvel universe, you have the mutants with their X-genes, such as the X-Men, and in DC universe you have metahumans with their metagenes, such as Black Canary and her sonic scream. These are superheroes whose origins come from their inherent nature, the very fabric of their being, whether that be robotic or genetic. Here they are “born” with their abilities, and the explanation for the ability comes from a scientific understanding of their nature.
Iron Man has gone through various Machs or versions of his famous suit, each becoming more advanced than the previous one, and many serving specific purposes. Green Arrow, on the other hand, relies on his trusted bow, and has been known to employ a variety of trick arrows while on the job. Here are those superheroes whose origins come from the technologies and tools they employ to fight crime and stop evil plans to take over the world. The technology can be simple, or it can be the most advanced technology created. They are people who recognize the limitations of their own bodies and have voluntarily taken up armor and weapons to do battle, just as the medieval knights and Japanese samurai did ages ago.
Barry Allen became the second Flash when a freak lab accident doused him with chemicals electrified by a lightning bolt. To become Cyborg, teenager Victor Stone’s parents saved him by welding cybernetic components onto his body after a freak lab accident left him for dead. Steve Rodgers was the only successful recipient of an experimental procedure to make super soldiers, making him Captain America. Teenager Peter Parker would not have been Spider-Man were it not for that bite from a radioactive spider. Here are superheroes whose origins come from scientific accidents that most likely would’ve killed them in our universe. But in these comic book universes, the accident bestows the victim with amazing abilities, and it is up to the person to decide what to do with them.
Thus we come to how superheroes become good role models for us. They demonstrate to us how to properly engage with and use science and technology. Through their decisions and behaviors, they come to model our hopes for science and technology – for what advances in either can mean for us, for our benefit, for our very survival.
Henry Pym has had many identities – seen here he is Ant-Man. But before, during, and after all of these identities, he has always been the genius scientist who seeks to create a more peaceful world with his inventions. Likewise, Batman is a master detective, skilled at deduction as much as he is at martial arts. He is also no slouch in the invention department, developing the tools of his trade throughout the years. Here we see how to use scientific genius for the good of the community, and not to fall prey to our own selfish desires or isolate ourselves and become mad scientists, spitting at the world.
Hal Jordan became the second superhero with the Green Lantern name, but the first to be humanity’s representation in an interstellar peacekeeping organization called the Green Lantern Corp. His luck was to come across the ring that would be his source of power. Likewise, in the comics, Thor is not simply Thor – he began as bonded with the crippled yet gifted doctor Donald Blake. During his travels, Blake finds an enchanted wooden cane that, when struck against the ground, turns him into Thor, with all of Thor’s powers. Both men made rather lucky discoveries, and their journeys demonstrate what to do with such good fortune.
The Fantastic Four started out as a scientist, his love interest, her brother, and their best friend on a scientific mission in space that goes wrong when they are washed in cosmic rays that change their very nature. They decide to band together as a family – a somewhat dysfunctional family – and do good with their new powers. Plastic Man started life more as a criminal, whose run from the law one day got him doused with mysterious chemicals – chemicals that essentially turned him into living plastic. And while he for a time used these powers in his criminal ways, he soon saw the light and moved into the superhero business. They demonstrate the proper way to respond to what is seemingly the worst thing that can happen to you; to overcome adversary and be a hero to others.
With great power comes, well, you know. Wonder Woman hails from a land of Amazonian warrior women who are well versed in the ways of combat – and she stands heads and shoulders above them with the extra gifts given to her, like her golden lasso and bulletproof bracelets. As leader of the X-Men, Professor Charles Xavier is the most powerful telepath there ever lived, and someone who could quite possibly rewrite the minds of anyone he desires. However, whether your great power is physical or mental, these superheroes demonstrate that such powers cannot be used to excess – that they have to be justified, used in the right situations to the right amount and for the right purpose. Only a weak person does not know how to properly wield power.
Supervillains, the superheroes nemeses, provide a contrast in behaviors, temperaments and motives, all of which only heightens the moral message of superheroes. The supervillains model the improper use of science and technology, and thus the fear we have of them running amok and causing uncontrollable damage.
Superman fights Lex Luthor, a scientific genius who seeks power for himself over anything else.
The X-Men fight Magneto, a mutant with bigoted ideas and terrorist goals.
Thor fights Ultron, an artificial intelligence bent on the destruction of all organic life.
Green Lantern fights Sinestro, a corrupted alien who seeks fear over peace.
Batman fights Mr. Freeze, twisted from a scientific accident and seeking selfish revenge.
The Fantastic Four fight Galactus, an alien cosmic force that cares of nothing other than its planet-consuming appetite.
These supervillains have the same types of origins as their counterparts, but something along their path twisted them, corrupted them, turned them away from a righteous path and unto one that is selfish, destructive. They are not role models, and they must be stopped before they inflict harm on those around them, including us, dear readers. We see such ethical issues born out in various stories, such as the Dan Slott run on The Superior Spider-Man to the found-footage film Chronicle to Marcus Alqueres short film “The Flying Man.” Each considers that thin line between justice and vigilantism, terror and hope, hero and villain, and each help us understand how important the inner struggle of the character is to walking one path or the other.
The superheroes’ struggles with themselves can also mirror our moral struggles in our daily lives, and they can highlight the need for rationality to overcome and be the guide for our decisions and actions. Let us consider the lessons of The Incredible Hulk.
Bruce Banner’s own research and selflessness turns against him when he is doused with gamma radiation; thereafter, any angry thought can turn him into the immensely powerful, and immensely raging Hulk. Over the years, the character has struggled with this identity. At times the Hulk becomes monstrously dangerous to everyone around him, even his friends, while at other times he is rational, aware of the strength he wields and able to do so to help his friends and the world.
The Hulk’s story contains the moral lessons we can gain from these embodiments of science and technology: that common good, self-sacrifice and the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one; that one’s responsibility is to others by having the responsibility to control one’s self; that we need to always act to improve, to move forward and to advance our self and others; and that we need to seek out tolerance, truth, justice, equality and respect. Thus, the Hulk’s struggles embody the morality of the Enlightenment, with Reason Over Emotion (Suppression of Positive & Negative for Heroics), Belief in Future (Progress with Proper Application Science & Technology) and Belief in People (Tolerance, Freedom, Democracy).
Is Hulk a man or a monster? He is both – he has both dark and light impulses, as do we all. But it is our morality that guides us between these oppositions, and helps us to become heroes in our own lives.
And so I leave you with this…
As originally first reported for the Clearance Bin Review, and as a preparation for the panel I am on this Wednesday night, November 6th, at Dominican University, I wrap up my three part series on superheroes (part 1 and part 2) with this entry, in which I attempt to answer this question: do religious figures and the heroes of legend fall under the definition of “superheroes?”
First, let’s look at the heroes of legend who have not been canonized as central figures to one of the many organized religions around the world. Here we focus on characters – mostly men – who have had their stories told and retold, from the oral tradition to the written pages. Perhaps at one point there was a real person who served as the basis for the legend. But over time, the stories became embellished and the truth, if there ever was any, grew fuzzy. Reality gave way to a narrative designed to impart to its listeners and readers some moral lesson on how to behave in their lives.
We find such characters in legends and myths from around the world, from cultures that have come and gone, to cultures that have succeeded in having their stories dominate the world stage. Some of these characters, due to the social power of their stories or the overall power of their cultures, have become well-known worldwide, to the point where they act as a template for other culture’s to adopt and adapt.
Consider, for example, Robin Hood. The basic template of Robin Hood is a rich man who has forsaken his identity so he can defend the poor and the powerless from the tyranny of the Sheriff of Nottingham. This basic narrative and characterization can be seen in modern day superheroes, such as Batman and Iron Man, with DC’s Green Arrow not only acting like the character but looking like him, too. But, then, is Robin Hood a superhero?
Well, Robin Hood was not his real name. According to the stories, his real name – the name of the wealthy landowner he had been – was Robert Fitzooth, Earl of Huntingdon, also known as Robin of Loxley. His codename, Robin Hood, was likely a reference to the costume that he wore (a cloak with a cowl). Thus, so far, we have a secret identity with a codename that is linked to a costume motif. In regards to superpowers, Robin Hood is often described as the best marksman in all of England, able to hit anything with his arrows. While not a magical or superhuman ability, it is considered above par, reflecting great skill, and could be akin to the powers of superheroes like those who are adapted from him (i.e. Batman, Green Arrow). Finally there is his sanctioned mission, which most likely also reflects the times in which the stories were told, both orally and in written form – a mission that has come to be summarized as “he robbed from the rich to give to the poor”. To Western cultures influenced by Christian doctrines, this mission reflects the selfless life and the striving to be of service to the community through sacrifice. Thus, Robin Hood, who has been around since the 14th century, could indeed be thought of as a modern day superhero.
If we go further back in time, then we can find other legendary, even mythical, figures who could be defined today as superheroes. Indeed, a number of these characters have become superheroes in the Marvel or DC universes – such as the Nordic god Thor or the Greek/Roman demigod Hercules or the figures called upon by Billy Batson to become Captain Marvel. However, there exist many more of these characters who have not been lionized in the pages of comic books.
Let us consider the figure of Perseus, who has had a rebirth as of late due to the films Clash of the Titans and Wrath of the Titans. According to Greek legend, Perseus was the result of a tryst between the Olympic god Zeus and the mortal woman Danae. Danae’s father, fearing Perseus, cast them from his kingdom. Raised in hardship, Perseus would go on to amazing feats: killing the Gorgon Medusa, rescuing the princess Andromeda from the sea serpent Cetus, and taming the Pegasus (which came not from the original myths, but later retellings, as the hero Bellerophon was the beast’s true tamer). Now, all these stories were based off a real man, who lived and ruled and had descendants. Unlike the Robin Hood stories, there was no codename in this legend: Perseus of the myths, as far as we can tell, was the same name as the individual of ancient history.
So that criteria of the superhero definition is not met. Next, did he have a costume motif? The common visual portrayals of Perseus find him with winged sandals – in the myth, it was these that helped him fly, not Pegasus – a sword in one hand, and the severed head of Medusa in the other. While not necessary a costume (the most clothing he seems to wear is a shawl), they are visually linked with his story and thus have become iconic representations of who he was and what he did. As for superpowers, being born of Zeus, as he is in the myth, does afford him extra strength and fortitude, as well as connections to the gods mere mortals could not have. These traits and connections served him in his quest to defeat Medusa and Cetus. We could then see such traits and connections serving as superpowers. Finally, in terms of a sanctioned mission, his story involves the rescue of a beautiful damsel-in-distress: a narrative that is one of the oldest in Western culture. The idea of a man protecting a woman, who also represents her society, is an example of a socially sanctioned mission: it is the role of men to safeguard the weak and powerless. While not fully meeting all of the criteria, there is so much similarity between the depiction of Perseus and our conceptualization of superheroes that were his story to originate today, he would most likely be considered as a superhero.
Now, these two examples come from Western cultures. So as to demonstrate how these figures could be seen as superheroes regardless of where they originated, one final legendary figure I would like to discuss comes from Japanese culture. According to history, Minamoto Yoshitsune was a tremendous warrior in the 12th century who served his country battling rebellions against the Emperor. His skill in battle lived on in stories passed down orally, in written tomes, and later in movies, anime/manga, and even video games. He was said to be a master swordsman and tactician.
Like Perseus, Yoshitsune did not appear to have a codename: the stories of his exploits, as embellished through time, use the same name as the historical figure. Unlike Perseus, there does not appear to be as common of a costume motif, outside of his depiction in the outfit and weaponry of a samurai, with only a tendency for such apparel to be red. As for superpowers, we find a telling of his abilities that mirrors both Robin Hood and Perseus. By many accounts, he is one of the finest swordsman seen in Japan, and by some accounts – from the narrative embellishments – he gained such skill due to mystical intervention. There are even accounts in the stories of his ability to slice leaves apart as they fell from trees – skills above and beyond the range of even the best samurai. Clearly he is portrayed in the stories as having superhuman skills. Finally, as for having a sanctioned mission, it can be said that many of the depictions of Yoshitsune depict him honorably for his bravery in standing up against corrupt samurai lords. If his story was not one of honor, then it would not have lasted for nearly a millennium.
But does that make him a superhero? Of the three legendary figures discussed, his is perhaps the least likely to be seen as such. His portrayal is often more tragic, given his brother’s betrayal and the seppuku that ended his life. However, his abilities, his iconic representation, and his culturally sanctioned mission all highlight a legend that could easily become a superhero by today’s standards.
Finally, let us consider figures from the world’s organized religions. To do so, I want to consider figures from two different religions that are still widely practiced around the world: Jesus of Nazareth, whose stories are central to Christian faith, and Ramachandra, whose story makes him a popular Hindi deity, specifically in Vaishnava scriptures. Now, in talking about the possibility of these characters as being superheroes, I am not trying to belittle the importance of such figures to those who are members of the organized religions the characters represent. Instead, I am trying to have us think about what a superhero means to us, in our modern age, and if we could see this meaning in the classical figures that have been so central to the beliefs of cultures around the world and throughout time.
To begin, let’s consider Jesus. Jesus’ story begins with the immaculate conception, linking Jesus to the Judaic deity Yahweh in a way similar to the linking of Perseus to Zeus. However, their stories are immensely divergent, as Jesus’ journey is not one of violence but peace, preaching new ways for Mankind to live with each other and secure their future in the Kingdom of God. However, similar to Perseus, he is also able to perform miracles thanks to his birth, such as healing lepers and paralytics, walking on water, or feeding the masses with scant bread and fish. However, the most powerful miracle attributed to Jesus was his overcoming his own death after crucifixion by the Roman oppressors of Israel. Were his story to have its origin today, the performance of such miracles might be termed by common superhero parlance such as “transmutation” or “telekinesis” or “regeneration”. Thus, based on this connection, we could argue that the ability of Jesus to perform such miracles would have been his superhuman ability, that which made him the representation of God on Earth, and thus his superpowers.
Additionally, Jesus of Nazareth would have been his real name, with perhaps Jesus Christ his codename, especially for those of the Christian faith, to whom his real identity was the Son of God, and thereby God Himself on Earth. To those of the Judaic and Islamic faiths, Jesus was not the Son of God or the incarnation of God, but was instead a prophet. However, all three religions agree on his mission being sanctioned because of his goal to ease human suffering. And while there may also be some differences in opinion on how to visually portray him, the most common portrayal around the world is of a white man with long hair, a beard, and simple, flowing garments. Like Robin Hood, the iconic nature of Jesus comes closest to the criteria of costume motif for defining superheroes.
This iconic nature, combined with the miracles, the identity, and the sanctioned mission means Jesus could be described as a superhero. And the ability to define Jesus as such is not lost on modern day superhero storytellers. Like Robin Hood, his narrative will often serve as the template for superheroes: the basic narrative of being sent to Earth to do good for the people through self-sacrifice. It is a narrative most known for the common depictions of Superman as having been sent to this planet by his father to protect and serve humans through the sacrifice of a normal life – as depicted in the 1978 Superman film. The analogy was also present in the 2006 Superman Returns film, most notably when Superman sacrifices himself to save Earth and is portrayed in a pose as if crucified.
The last figure I wish to discuss is perhaps most known around the world as the hero of the Ramayana, an epic Hindu tale of Rama, or Ramachandra, an avatar or incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. The epic tells of Rama’s journey to save his wife Sita from the demon king Ravana. In Hindu beliefs, Vishnu, in the second age of mankind, walked the world incarnated as Lord Rama; in this incarnation, he defeated Ravana, ending his reign of terror and restoring peace to Earth. Similar to the role Jesus plays in the Christian faith, Rama is portrayed as the ideal human, a pantheon for how to live as a human during one’s time on Earth. During his journey to defeat Ravana, Rama wields the brahmastra, an unimaginably powerful weapon created by the god Brahma, and he is helped by other gods who provide him with the knowledge to defeat the demon king.
Thus, like Jesus, he is related to a higher deity by being that deity’s incarnation on Earth, set there to complete a great task. Unlike Jesus, Rama completes this task with great violence, although that only comes after offering his enemies the chance for peace. Rama then has a similar dual identity: he is both a member of a royal family, as Lord Rama, and an avatar, as Ramachandra. As with Perseus, his abilities are granted because of the weapons and connections he has with other deities; and, as with Jesus, he also has superhuman skills due to his status as an incarnation. Rama is commonly visually represented as a blue-skinned human, often carrying a bow and arrows used for his battle with Ravana. However, like Jesus and Yoshitsune, the visual depiction is not thematically linked to his identity or his abilities.
As to whether or not his mission is socially sanctioned: the whole journey he undertakes meets this criterion in two ways. First, he is attempting to save his wife from the lecherous clutches of Ravana: the role of the husband protecting his wife, and his own reputation, is commonly sanctioned as the proper role for a man in many cultures. Second, in his battle with Ravana, he is tasked with bringing about the end of the demon king’s evil reign on Earth, restoring some of the peace and harmony felt in the previous age of mankind. Thus his journey is the ultimate one of good versus evil, a motif so common across cultures and time that it may be one of the most fundamental stories of our species. Considering all of these aspects of Rama, there appears to be quite a bit of overlap in how we have told his story with how we define superheroes.
I have only discussed five characters in today’s column – five out of thousands. What of other mythologies such as Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Sumaritan, Nordic and so forth? What of other religious figures, such as Moses, Mohammad, and Siddhartha? What about legendary figures from other cultures, such as El Cid, Beowulf, the Outlaws of the Marshes, and Paul Bunyan? Would we consider any of these to be akin to our modern day superheroes, due to their portrayals and stories?
A long time ago, huddling around fires, stories would be told of great men, and women, with great abilities who performed great tasks to save and protect us poor mortals who have to huddle around fire for warmth. These great men and women were the figures of our legends, our myths, and even what would become our modern day religions. We have never stopped telling these stories, inventing new characters for new times whose stories are told in new media – books, films, radio, comic books, television. They became pulp heroes, and then superheroes. But looking back through time, how we see superheroes today is very similar to how our ancestors saw their heroic figures.
In the end, superheroes are perhaps the latest in the lineage of personalities whose stories can bring us hope and bring us an idea of how to live in the world and with those other mortals all around us. And as long as we need that hope and those ideas, we’ll never run out of superheroes – or whatever comes next.
On November 6th, I will be part of a panel on superheroes, morality and the modern world at Dominican University. As a lead up to that event, I thought I rerun a series of articles that first appeared on Clearance Bin Review and that would delve into a topic that is at the heart of this panel’s discussion. And that topic is: just what is a superhero, anyway?
When you think about superheroes, ten-to-one you’re thinking of a Marvel character or a DC character from each respective line of comic books.
The following is the bulk of the presentation I will be giving this Friday, October 11th, at the Midwest Popular Culture Association conference in St. Louis. For all of you (which is the majority of the world) who cannot be there to hear the presentation, I give you what it is all about — my first full study testing my minutia reception studies method.
“Making sense of the American superhero film:
Critical engagement and cinematic entanglement”
Today I am presenting the first full fledged study to utilize a method I have been developing to measure a film spectator’s engagement with a film on a moment-by-moment basis. I call it the “minutia reception method”, and I hope that when applied it can help us understand how people make sense of a film – what they draw on to interpret the film, what they focus on in the film, and what is their overall impression of the film. I employed this method as part of a larger study; this part focuses on how people engaged with American superhero films. The analysis I am presenting here seeks to understand how their making sense of these films involved becoming entangled in it whilst simultaneously or alternatively being critical of it – and how the one does not preclude the other from occurring.
(From a 2004 paper on a cross-cultural examination of the superheroine)
In their article on children and role models, Anderson and Cavallaro (2002) say that superheroes are “larger-than-life symbols of American values and ‘maleness’.” (p. 162). From a socialization point of view, is there reason to be concerned about the ‘superhero’-centeredness of a segment of the American pop culture to which many children are exposed? And if this is the case in America, where many believe women are on a more equal alignment with men, what is the situation in other societies, such as Japan, where inequality is perceived to be more common? Both the United States and Japan have a segment of their pop culture devoted to fantastic stories about individuals with superhuman powers. These stories tell of heroes with strengths that children may identify with in the hope becoming as successful as these characters (Anderson & Cavallaro, 2002). It then becomes imperative to understand how these heroes are portrayed. Are the women in media, which is directed towards tomorrow’s women, being portrayed as strong and independent rather than as victims and damsels-in-distress?