Thursday, November 03, 2005

Oppose Hypostatization!

On the whole, I oppose heroes and villains with hypostatized powers.

Heroes (and villains) can do specific things. Flash moves fast. Batman is smart and fights well. Superman can fly, is really tough and really strong. Green Arrow shoots arrows well. Exactly how fast, how smart, how strong, how well etc., are details that can vary as the plot requires. But the essence of what the character can do is concrete and it's fairly easy to imagine plots that challenge them or where failure is possible, allowing for dramatic tension.

A lot of Silver Age writers took advantage of "concrete powers" to create three-act plots:
  1. Hero encounters villain and loses (the villain accomplishes his goal and escapes).
  2. Hero encounters villain and there is a stalemate (the villain's goal is thwarted but he still escapes).
  3. Hero encounters villain and wins (the villain is both thwarted and captured).

A classic example (don't laugh) is the original (um ... and only) Aquaman versus the AWESOME HUMAN FLYING FISH story.
  1. On the first encounter, Aquaman is taken by surprise by the HFF's aquatic and flying powers, and the villains gets away with the loot.
  2. The next time, Aquaman has wised up and has a strategy that takes those powers into account; he stops the theft but the Fish gets away.
  3. Then, Aquaman, always a thinking man's hero, sets a trap for the Fish, which succeeds.

A hero with concrete abilities encounters a situation or opponent that challenges those abilities and through increasingly strategic use of those powers -- or simply cleverness -- triumphs. The hero doesn't win all the time; he simply wins in the end. It's remarkable to me how easily many people confuse the two.

Storytelling starts to stumble when hypostatization -- treating an abstract power as if it were a concrete one -- begins to take hold of the character. Flash as "really fast guy" even "the fastest man alive" works. But when he becomes (as the modern Flash has) the Wielder of the Speed Force, controlling the very concept of kinetic power (as he does not with his "kinetic distribution power") his powers are hypostatized, rendering him nearly unwritable.

This happened to Superman in the Silver Age. Superman could not be harmed. PERIOD. Talk about treating an abstract idea as if it were concrete! Magic & kryptonite, that was it; otherwise, forget it. The result? Every other story has to have either kryptonite or magic in it. Yawn. Throw in the ability to travel through time at will and a couple pounds of Amnesium, and rooting for Superman becomes pretty much redundant. No wonder Supes degenerated into sitcom and soap opera (*choke*!).

Batman has been called "the world's greatest detective" but that really doesn't mean much unless he's engaged in a one or one "detecting battle" with an enemy. Batman has pretty much escaped hypostatization (although Morrison teetered close to it with his Perfect Batman With A Plan schtick). You can still believably beat the crap out of Batman. Nevertheless, the effects of Morrisonesque hypostatization of Batman is noticeable in the hordes of young fans who simply denied that it was possible for Hal Jordan to hit Batman, as if Batman's unbeatablility were a magic power.

Marvel characters are usually overcome by hypostatization when they fall for their own press.
  • Green Arrow is a darned good shot but Bullseye is The Man Who Never Misses (tm).
  • Green Lantern's willpower is stronger than fear, but Daredevil is The Man Without Fear (tm).
  • Wolverine is The Best At What He Does (which is killing, as far as I can tell; nice power, bub).
  • And, of course, "nothing can stop the Juggernaut"!

As a character's powers grow more hypostatized, there are more and more obstacles to writing the character. An occasional hypostatic figure can be fun and colorful, such the Quiz (from Morrison's Brotherhood of Dada), who had Every Power You Hadn't Yet Thought Of. But when your mainstream pillar characters start to fall victim to the Hypostatic Syndrome, then a reboot becomes inevitable. The "de-hypostatization" of the Flash and Superman was one of things the post-Crisis world was supposed to accomplish. It did.

But then the editors let the writers forget the real reason the Crisis was necessary: not because the world had become too complex but because its characters had grown too powerful to write. And now the Spectre, who has essentially been deified, is cruising for a bruising, too, necessitating Day of Vengeance.

Contrary to popular belief, readers don't lose interest in a character once they realize he's not going to lose. They lose interest in a character when they realize he cannot lose and still remain who he is... which is different thing entirely.




27 comments:

Iron Lungfish said...

Hear hear. I would argue, though, that the Spectre - or at least the Ostrander-era Spectre - is the exception that proves the rule. While he necessarily wins every fight by virtue of being omnipotent, the story becomes a morality play about what he should do with his power rather than a more conventional "overcome the obstacle" story about what he can do with his power. Of course, this may merely demonstrate that the Spectre, while awesome, is simply not doable as a superhero.

H said...

Excellent entry Scipio.

Ironically, I think the character who has fallen victim to hypostatization the most in recent times is Batman. Remember those old posts of yours showing Batman taking repeated blows to the head (many of them from ordinary thugs)? That's a Batman worth reading about.

A Batman who can be clobbered is a Batman who is going to be in a story with an interesting challenge to overcome. A Batman who is too smart for any but the equally hypostatized villains to touch is a bore.

Monty said...

And, of course, "nothing can stop the Juggernaut"!

Also The Blob, who Cannot Be Knocked Over. I always thought that was kind of an odd mutation.

Chris Arndt said...

No, it was "Nothing Can Move the Blob", a villain whose precise powers depend, for the most part, on the writer.

Ultimately he cannot be involuntarily budged from wherever he has willingly positioned himself, nor can his grip be broken.

He is also more or less indestructable and invulnerable to physical impact once firmly planted.

Those are the effects; the power that is the cause is up for consideration. I prefer to think of it as a sort of tactile telekenisis, before that wording came into play. In his second appearence, attempts to move him caused the ground he was standing on to move with him.

Interestingly I have a bunch of comics where Superman is in full Pre-Crisis mode but is not hypostatized. He can lose control of flight, be knocked from the sky, get punched and harmed, and the factors being his respective obstacles' respective strength.

The comics don't bother to mention how powerful Superman is because it's irrelevent to the story. All we need to see is that Amazo is quite powerful, etc. A lot of the problem is the writer and not quite the character. Also there are stories where Superman faces a morality play of his own, rather than just taking care of business simply.

Sarah said...

young fans who simply denied that it was possible for Hal Jordan to hit Batman, as if Batman's unbeatablility were a magic power

...I think this has more to do with its being Hal Jordan. A man like you should understand this!

Scipio said...

"Interestingly I have a bunch of comics where Superman is in full Pre-Crisis mode but is not hypostatized. He can lose control of flight, be knocked from the sky, get punched and harmed, and the factors being his respective obstacles' respective strength."

Bronze Age comics, I'll bet, or JLA stories.

Thanks for reminding me of the Blob, guys. Marvel has characters who are LITERALLY an Immovable Object and an Unstoppable Force; now THAT's hypostatization!

Amy said...

...I think this has more to do with its being Hal Jordan. A man like you should understand this!

That was part of it, but the reasoning I've heard most is something along the lines of: Batman can take out a room full of ninjas, but he can't see one right cross coming?

The assumption there is that Batman, ala Deathstroke (another recent victim of this OMGWhatCan'tHeDo syndrome) can automatically predict anyone's combat moves and block them before the actual blow is thrown.

Mike Loughlin said...

I see where you are coming from, Scipio, and I agree, mostly. There are, however, plenty of good stories featuring The Man Without Fear, the Strongest One There Is, and other hypostatized characters. Juggernaut can't be stopped, so how the heck is a mid-power hero like Spider-Man going to beat him? The Hulk is stronger than anything, but what happens when he loses his wife? Morpheus is among the most powerful beings in the universe, yet he can't (or won't) prevent his demise.

Likewise, there are oceans of baaaaad stories featuring super-zeniths (see: 90% of Wolverine's solo series). For me, approach and characterization count more than strict power-level definition. As another poster mentioned, Ostrander & Mandrake took the near-omnipotent Spectre and made a great comic book around him. Although he Flash became ridiculously powerful, I found the Waid issues entertaining.

In the '90s, I got fed up with characters with ill-defined powers, who could do whatever the plot required. Ghost Rider, Spawn, and other "mystic" beings were the worst (not just because their comics were terrible)- if you need Grim 'n Gritty Magic Guy to teleport or command the dead or turn a demon into goulash, you got it. Robotic characters, martial artists, and the endless Superman rip-offs (excuse me, homages) had a similar flexibility, without set limits. Boring!

HammerHeart said...

I completely agree about the excessive "upgrading" of the heroes making them harder to write... but even such characters only need the right writer.

Take Wolverine, for instance. In both X-Men and his own comic, he's effectively immortal and indestructible on Superman levels – blow off his arm and it will grow back, incinerate him and his skin will be completely healed before you can say "ridiculous". BUT Garth Ennis knew precisely how to make Wolvie's power entertaining – he simply had Logan visit the Punisher's title, and told the tale of how Frank Castle repeatedly maimed and dismembered the ever-healing Wolvie. It's a hilariously gory adventure that reminded me of Roadrunner cartoons: Punisher runs over Wolverine with a truck, flattening him like a pizza; then Punisher blasts off Wolverine's legs; Punisher puts Wolverine through a meat grinder; and it goes on like this until the end of the story. That was probably the best Wolverine story ever, because Ennis KNEW how to handle an obnoxious immortal/indestructible thug: kill him, then kill him some more, then kill him AGAIN! *party*

Chris said...

Brilliant post, Scipio. Hypostatization (I had no idea there was a word for it) is indeed a foul odor 'pon our garden of comics.

I think technology and magic-based heroes have a better time of it -- they can always invent a new machine (and so can their villains) or create a new spell (and, er, so can their villains).

Unfortunately, these heroes are also the ones that nobody seems to be able to write well.

Tom Foss said...

This reminds me of a letter to Wizard many years ago (when I read Wizard), where someone asked what would happen if the unstoppable Juggernaut ran into the immovable Blob. Wizard suggested either that one of their monikers would have to give, or that Juggernaut would be bounced off in another direction, so he isn't really stopping, and the Blob didn't really move.

I think Geoff Johns has really done some of the best work with hypostatization, on the Flash, where he just kind of ignored the Waid status quo of constant time travel and whatnot. Wally could do speedy things, but was limited by the circumstances. Traveling through time and changing history or the future or whatever is almost too complicated to take out street thugs and random Rogues.

In other words, I think one of the cures for this is putting the character in circumstances where their godlike powers are meaningless. Superman's ability to fly didn't mean jack in his battle with Doomsday, because Doomsday couldn't fly. Sure, he could get away from things, but then Doomsday would just lay waste to more of the city. When the villain sets the arena and the terms of the fight, the hero is immediately at a disadvantage, no matter what the situation is.

Scott said...

"Superman's ability to fly didn't mean jack in his battle with Doomsday, because Doomsday couldn't fly. "

Shouldn't it, though? I would have thought he would have used every tactical advantage, from flying out of range using heat vision, to picking up the entire chunk of earth Doomsday was standing on and flying the whole shebang into orbit.

The Doc said...

Intelligent, thoughtful posts like this one are why I love this place. Well, that and the fashion tips, haikus, and...pretty much all the rest of it. Thanks for the well-thought out essay, and for teaching me a new vocabulary word!

MarkAndrew said...

Nah. I don't buy it. I grok the general concept of Hypostatization (Although it seems that the problem here is making concrete powers LESS concrete, ala the Flash, and I don't see how your Marvel examples tie into the first part of your argument...)

But I don't think it makes for badm or even worse, stories.

The other posters have pretty much articulated all my reasons why, but I'll try and tie 'em together:

"The comics don't bother to mention how powerful Superman is because it's irrelevent to the story."

Yeah. That's always been my take on it. Neil Gaiman's Sandman is pretty much my favorite Mainstream comic ever, and the head protaginist dude is literally three steps up from a God on the power-ometer.
A good writer can give ANY hero worthwhile challenges. Give Supes a problem that can't be overcome with brute force and heat vision, or bring in an antagonist more competent than he is, either physically or mentally.

Now, granted, it's not every day the writer can create a villain as awesmely menacing as the human flying fish.

Failing that, ignore the problem as best you can.

On paper, given the powers t that the Flash has, he should be able drop the dude in the Eskimo suit with the "Cold" Gun (Which has always seemed less effective than a "real" gun) in prison, signed sealed and delivered before Eskimo Junior had a chance to blink...

But that would be a pretty stoopid story, so John Broome or whoever didn't write it like that.

Problem solved.

MarkAndrew said...

Oh. AND ANOTHER THING!!! *Shakes Cane*

I see Superman's Switch to Sit-com in the fifties as more of a not-especially-effective response to the popularity of the more jocular Captain Marvel and a way to cut back on the violence in those Wertham paranoid times.

David Campbell said...

Scipio, you yourself are in danger of becoming hypostatized as the most Brilliant Comic Blogger EVER!

Chris Arndt said...

"Doomsday" was a bad story in part because the man who could fly didn't just drop the monster that couldn't fly into deep space.

Also:

Superman stopped in the middle of story and said something to the effect that he had to strategize because punching Doomsday was hurting himself. His plan? "I'll hit him with something. Yeeeeeah! Something big!" Then he throws a tree-trunk at Doomsday.

His idea of strategy is to swing something at the monster like a club?

Yeah, sense of wonder indeed. This is what the Crisis brought us.

Monkey In Blender said...

"This is what the Crisis brought us."

No, that's what bad writers brought us. Bad writing certainly wasn't a unique innovation of Crisis: pre-Crisis you had bad writers writing a ludicrously overpowered supergenius Superman; post-Crisis you had bad writers writing a slightly less ludicrously overpowered Superman of above-average intelligence.

Tom Foss said...

"Shouldn't it, though? I would have thought he would have used every tactical advantage, from flying out of range using heat vision, to picking up the entire chunk of earth Doomsday was standing on and flying the whole shebang into orbit."

Except that heat vision didn't work on the monster, and most of the chunk of Earth Doomsday was on was residential. Plus, that would require Doomsday to stay still for a good period of time, or to not try to break up said chunk of land.

"'Doomsday' was a bad story in part because the man who could fly didn't just drop the monster that couldn't fly into deep space."
Well, they did eventually do that. Which led to "Hunter/Prey," a far worse result than the original Doomsday storyline.

I have to imagine that it'd be pretty tough to hang on to a gigantic monster that was beating the holy hell out of you as you pulled it out of the atmosphere.

Point being, when the villain sets the terms of the battle, the hero is at an immediate disadvantage. If Superman fights Metallo, he has to figure out a way to beat him without getting close to the Kryptonite radiation. If the villain is Lex Luthor, he typically has to fight a game of wits rather than muscles. When Spider-Man fights the Vulture, he has to figure out a way to combat a villain who mostly stays in the air. Having the ability to stick to walls and swing from buildings is pretty useless when you're in the open air. If you're the Human Torch and your enemy is Namor, and you're fighting in Atlantis, you're pretty well screwed.

Hypostatization ceases to be a problem when the hypostatized powers become useless or redundant given the situation.

kelvingreen said...

Thanks for reminding me of the Blob, guys. Marvel has characters who are LITERALLY an Immovable Object and an Unstoppable Force; now THAT's hypostatization!
There's also Unus the Untouchable, who can't be touched. And the Hulk, who's the strongest there is, so should by all rights be able to stop the Juggernaut and move the Blob, but can do neither.

Oh, and Hammerheart, which Punisher issue was that? i've been trying to track it down for a while.

HammerHeart said...

Oh, and Hammerheart, which Punisher issue was that? i've been trying to track it down for a while.

It's in The Punisher (sixth series) #16 and #17. Art by Darrick Robertson. If you want the TPB that contains those issues, it's called The Punisher Vol. 3: Business as Usual.

Chris Arndt said...

"I have to imagine that it'd be pretty tough to hang on to a gigantic monster that was beating the holy hell out of you as you pulled it out of the atmosphere."

I suppose throwing the monster was too hard for Superman.

In the comic he tried to fly Doomsday off earth once. Doomsday impaled him. Superman didn't try again. Perhaps Superman should have tried again.

What kind of above-average intelligence is bonded to a super-hero that his grand plan involved "hit him with something! YEah! Something big!"

See, there are a lot, and I mean A LOT of Post-Crisis Superman stories where the fights are like this. I'm not sure the majority of the writers were qualified to handle the Post-Crisis Superman all that much, and I liked Dan Jurgens! I still like Dan Jurgens.

Yet for all the problems with Superman being "godlike supergenius".... it doesn't come up and had not come up so much before 1986 as much as most Post-Crisis readers think.

I kind of missed the days when if Superman gets into an actual slugfest it is a big deal. That villain must be awesome scary. Later there came a time when Bloodsport gave him nearly as much trouble as Darkseid.

No.... there's no above average intelligence. If there was then Superman would just hit some of his lamer villains instead of letting them last ten pages to pad an issue.

Of course, maybe they need to be padded to hold out over four titles or five titles a month.... grrrr.

Ragnell said...

You've beautifully articulated just one of the reasons I lobby for the return of the Yellow Weakness, among other ideas the casual fan considers "silly."

Hmm... Aehfsh. An adjective for Aquaman, no doubt.

Tom Foss said...

"What kind of above-average intelligence is bonded to a super-hero that his grand plan involved "hit him with something! YEah! Something big!"

See, there are a lot, and I mean A LOT of Post-Crisis Superman stories where the fights are like this. I'm not sure the majority of the writers were qualified to handle the Post-Crisis Superman all that much, and I liked Dan Jurgens! I still like Dan Jurgens."

That's a damn good point. Let it never be said that Superman's been the province solely of good writers. Quite the opposite, usually. Although I fondly remember quite a few stories by Jurgens and Kesel.

Chris Arndt said...

The Hulk being the Strongest One There Is is not hypostatization. It's hyperbole.

Regrdless the Hulk has also stopped the Juggernaut and moved the Blob, despite that their powers are not hyperbole.

Bruce said...

What about "will power" itself? Will power is not a thing--it's a quality of the person. As I recall, Abin Sur sent the word out for the guy on earth with the most will power. That would have to be shorthand for the guy with the most dominant personality or strength of will, to make things happen because he wants it to. Stalin, or the Godfather, say. So it always annoys me to have a ringbearer use his "will power." (Oh, anyone with that kind of overbearing personality ought to be able to slug The Bat-Man any time he wants to, ring or no.)

Anonymous said...

A couple thoughts:

1) The Flash, however powerful he is today, is nowhere near Barry Allen's level of sheer ridiculousness. I can find you a story where the Reverse Flash blew up the cosmic treadmill while Barry was using it, and Barry's atoms were scattered through a few hours of time. So Barry just had to wait until all his molecules popped out of the time stream, gradually reassembling himself particle by particle; there's a great panel depicting one of his boots with a thought balloon emanating from it because that's the first part of his body Barry was able to reconstitute. So that sets the bar pretty high, I think, and I don't think Wally West even begins to approach it.

2) As for Hal punching Batman, don't forget that, at that instant, the whole planet was getting its first taste of Parallax. I don't think it's a stretch that, during a moment when fear incarnate was trying to sink its hooks into Batman, he might have been just a wee bit distracted.

3) While I confess I didn't read the whole Superman vs. Doomsday saga, it seems to me that, if Superman could throw a tree at him, he could also potentially use the tree like a golf club. I don't know if it was shown in the comics that Doomsday was unaccountably immovable like the Blob, but if not, well, there was no excuse for Superman to not be able to swat him into orbit.

4) The yellow weakness isn't necessary against Green Lanterns because concentration and attention are required to direct the ring. Sneaking up on Hal's skull, overwhelming him with attacks from multiple directions, or piping some nitrous oxide into the air are all perfectly plausible ways to beat a Green Lantern without relying on a kryptonite-like gimmick.

5) I have a theory about why the Flash gets nailed by not-very-fast weapons such as the cold gun. Imagine you're the Flash and you're trying to talk to Captain Cold -- maybe ask him where he's holding his hostages -- if you want to hear the answer as intelligible English, you probably need to drop most of the way out of speed mode. Puny banter renders you vulnerable.