Monday, September 16, 2013

What Makes a Superhero So Super?

Recently I’ve been on a bit of a superhero binge. It all began when I read Mark Schleske’s essay on Star Trek Into Darkness, which brought to my attention a point about Superman which I never knew: Superman does not kill. This made me realize quite simply that I knew almost nothing about Superman, and so I decided to find out more. Unfortunately I had no access to any Superman comic books and so I began my journey by watching Smallville (purists out there, please forgive me), where I learned unequivocally that Superman does not kill. In Smallville his actions oftentimes lead to the inadvertent and usually convenient deaths of others, but he never directly kills anyone. But what really drew me into Smallville was neither Superman himself, nor his struggles, but rather his superhero compatriots, particularly the Green Arrow.

When the Green Arrow (aka Oliver Queen) is first introduced into Smallville, Clark Kent has not yet become Superman, and he uses his powers only to protect his friends and family from harm. When Oliver stumbles across Clark’s powers, he begins to push Clark to use his abilities for more than just his friends in Smallville, and he is largely responsible for the beginnings of the Justice League. But the driving principles behind Clark and Oliver’s crime-fighting antics are fundamentally different. Oliver is willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish what he believes is for the greater good, while Clark always searches for a way that will not break his own personal code, even if it might lead to the destruction of the planet. Luckily for Clark, at least in Smallville, his plans succeed when it counts and his friends are willing to take action when Clark is unwilling. Superman might not kill, but the Green Arrow certainly does (especially in the new series Arrow which I thoroughly enjoyed and is starting up again soon).

The character of the Green Arrow is in many ways a modern day Robin Hood and is the direct translation of a fantasy character into a modern day superhero role. This intrigued me, and as I began to further explore the comic book universe, I began to run across more and more fantastical elements that I had never realized existed in the world of superheroes: Dr. Fate, Zatanna, Hellboy, Constantine, and Thor to name a few. To me caped crusaders and masked vigilantes had belonged to the world of science fiction and not the realm of fantasy. Evidently my knowledge of superheroes is poor at best. But what truly cemented the connection between superhero and fantasy for me was the discovery the Books of Magic, a compendium of all the magical elements in the DC universe written by none other than Neil Gaiman (who I had already known for American Gods, Stardust, and Neverwhere). As you can imagine, the Books of Magic have moved to the top of my reading list, but alas I have not yet obtained them.

Clearly, then, there are large elements of fantasy in superhero stories, but are there superheroes in fantasy? What makes a superhero a superhero? Is Merlin a superhero? Gandalf? Dumbledore? Perhaps the defining characteristic of a superhero is the use of their extraordinary powers to serve and protect the public in a way that oftentimes violates the laws of the society in which they live (although I think Superman usually doesn’t do anything illegal). One of the core issues in most superhero stories is the line the superhero must walk between upholding justice and vigilantism. In fantasy, however, this issue rarely plays a role as the evil that oftentimes must be defeated is so large a threat that the heros of the story can break any laws without fear of public outrage or retribution. While Gandalf clashes with the sovereignty of both Theoden and Lord Denethor in Lord of the Rings, his actions are not perceived by the populace of either Rohan or Gondor as threats to their societies due to the larger menace of Sauron. In the Wheel of Time Rand topples nations with wild abandon, but is welcomed as a hero by the public. Sabriel from Abhorsen is never perceived as a vigilante, nor is Shea in The Sword of Shannara or Vin in the Mistborn trilogy. However, in Harry Potter, Dumbledore most certainly is, driven to the point of hiding from the MInistry of Magic. Here, the key difference with the previous examples is that the general public is ignorant of the threat from Voldemort. It is this difference, the knowledge of impending doom by the public, which I believe prevents superheroes from directly entering most fantasy.

But why do the evils from works of fantasy announce their presence so blatantly to the world, while the supervillians of comics rarely do? The evil that superheroes are pitted against is inevitably weaker than the superhero and must by necessity use guile and stealth to achieve its ultimate aims, while the evil of fantasy is overwhelmingly more powerful than the heroes of the story and utterly confident in its ultimate victory. One on one, Gandalf could never stand against Sauron, but Superman could destroy Lex Luthor in a heartbeat. Such a difference suggests that there is perhaps a fundamental difference in purpose and structure between fantasy and superhero stories.  Or maybe I just need to read more superhero comics and get my story straight.

By Philip Ilten