Saturday, September 09, 2006

Holy Phylogeny, Batman!

In the Golden Age, DC heroes were mostly rich guys or aliens, capable of amazing stunts of well, superhuman proportions. They were morally noble, but tended not to get hung up on little societal details like "due process". Impressive though they were, they sure got knocked around a lot; but it never seemed to bother them much.
  • He is of high birth or even something more than human.

  • He must perform extraordinary feats.

  • His is a noble character which is close to perfectly ideal.

  • The suffering of the character is physical.

The Silver Age saw new heroes like Barry Allen and Hal Jordan, who were essentially regular joes. Older heroes like Batman and Superman became less independent and more public figures; instead of confronting governors and defying police, they started working with them, for them almost.
  • A hero can be of common birth.

  • Battle is an ongoing test of manhood and loyalty to the community

  • A man has to be seen as having a good moral character including. chastity and obedience (doesn’t actually need to be of such a character, perception more important than actuality).

  • Must demonstrate obedience to hierarchy; Must follow elaborate rules of chivalry, dress, courtesy, and codes of conduct.

  • Wages war on behalf of the community.

Then Marvel hit the scene and looked at heroes in a new, more personal way. Volatile and emotional characters struggled to understand themselves and their powers. Spider-Man wrestled with his ambivalence over the responsibilities of his powers. The Fantastic Four created unique roles for themselves as "celebrity superheroes". The X-Men spent much time considering what it meant to be "a mutant" and what the future of the mutant community should be.
  • Birth and class are unimportant: the individual transcends society

  • The battle is internal: it is a psychological war won by the “courage to be me”.

  • Moral codes are eccentric–heroes make their own rules

  • Passions are outside of individual control

  • Self knowledge is valued more than physical strength or endurance
    (physical courage is de-valued)

  • The hero is moody, isolated, and introspective

  • Loyalty is to a particular project and to a community of like-minded others

Some later heroes were more cynical in design. The Question, Booster Gold, the Creeper, Lobo, Hitman, the Wildstorm heroes; all of them seemed to be focused on just getting by, with goals and behaviors that stood out in contrast to their predecessor. Even some old heroes, like Iron Man, got recast into this new "heroic" mold. If you'll read the most recent issue of Freedom Fighters, you'll see Uncle Sam take heroes of this type and try renovate them into nobler heroes based on the early model of the Golden and Silver Ages.
  • He seeks merely to survive–to create a pool of light in a world of dark shadows.

  • The war is against meaninglessness: the battle is to create meaning and value.

  • The heroes have a code of behavior rather than a code of ethics - they portray men who are impassive, hard-boiled, never surprised by events.

  • The world is seen as having no internal order: anything goes–the hero is as likely to be debauched and depraved as the enemy.

  • The internal struggle is with addiction to drugs, liquor, sex, money.
    The external struggle is with corruption in government, the military, schools - formal organizations.

  • There is no sense of community. The hero lives for a small, select circle which can be merely one woman or a few trusted friends.

Why, if I didn't know better, I'd say the comic book industry intentionally replicated the development of the four literary conceptions of the heroic (Classic, Medieval, Romantic, and Modern).


Anonymous said...

So what about the real recent stuff (relatively speaking), that returns to loyalty to the community and moral nobility, but keeps the importance of introspection and individuality? Stuff like JSA or Kingdom Come?

Matthew E said...

Yeah, you could look at it like that. Or you could say that the comic book heroes reflect the four generational archetypes isolated by Strauss and Howe, which show up in all kinds of things, including, I guess, the four literary conceptions of the heroic. In this case, Hero, Artist, Prophet and Nomad, respectively.

Anonymous said...

Scipio, I think I'm in love.

Posts like this are why in just a couple of months your blog has become my first stop on this crazy internet thing.

I've not read new comics for a few years - the darkness became too much - but the Showcase editions have brought me back into the comics fold and you, sir, are the most insightful and articulate voice explaining how comics matter to us and more importantly, why they matter.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Scip, you are amazing. Have you ever thought about teaching a course on this at GWU? As Semiotics of Superheroes course or something? Incredible post.

One thought: couldn't Freedom Fighters also or even alternately be seen as Postmodern or even Post-Postmodern? In all honesty, I am always a bit confused about what consitutes the differences between the three, as it seems, as evidenced by your link, to be different across art genres. What I understand it to be, from my understanding influenced by training in music and visual art, is:

Modern: A rejection of traditional or classical rules of Art, particularly in regards to what could be seen as the self-indulgence of Romanticism. Asking "What is Art?"
A revolutionary sensibility.

PostModern: A return to Classicism, taking the anarchy of Modern and attempting to quantify and analyze it or apply the old rules to the anarchy, even when a difficult fit. Asking "Why is Art?" Despite it's reassumption of rules, it sensitbility tends to be anarchic.

PostPostModern: A return to Romanticism, with an extreme self awareness of it's indulgence or inward focus. In comics, it reflects as metatext, or in the case at times of Grant Morrison, hypermetatext. Asking "Who is Art?" A Yogic - a desire for union amidst the chaos - sensibility.

So then, I argue Freedom Fighters is Postmodern, with, as you say, a distinct return to Golden Age roots applied to distinctly Modern Antiheroes.

Yet it also appears to me Postpostmodern in that it seems to be commenting on itself about the nobility of the mission of the heroes' fight for freedom. The portrayals of Sam's recruits is distinctly Romantic to me in that Les Mis kind of way. Despite the inner tortures they all put themselves through, all the mental baggage they carry, they still are able to put it aside and fight for a higher cause.

One could argue that Father Time's world view, though cynical and misanthropic, is the correct/realistic one, and that the Fighter's fight is misguided, perhaps even paranoid, or at worst, vaguely cultlike. Firebrand's reaction to Sam's rescue was not one a free thinking adult makes – it was one of someone who has completely subsumed himself to both Sam's cause and charisma.

Or hell, I don't know, maybe I'm just being pretentious throwing around terms like PoMo and PoPoMo. I was just surprised I liked this book so much, as I didn't care for Battle for Bludhaven at all. I fully expect Monarch to pop up in this book at some point, or Father Time to be revealed as Hank Hall or both.

Scipio said...

"When are you going to write a book on all this stuff?"

Oh, who would buy the cow when I give the milk away for free? But I am one of the contributors for a forthcoming Wonder Woman anthology from BenBella's SmartPop Series.

"And shouldn't you be at the Baltimore con today?"
Devon's at that; I wouldn't really know what to do at a convention.

"Thank you."
You're welcome, Justguy; thank you. You can't imagine how much it helps to know someone is reading and appreciating ones work.

"couldn't Freedom Fighters also or even alternately be seen as Postmodern "

Ariel, that's exactly what Legba (one of the Little Monkeys) said at the store today. Of course, I really consider Post and PostPost just labels for the cycle starting over again. But your description of Postmodernism certainly fits the current DCU to a T.

Mike Haseloff said...

Any resemblence to classic archetypal progression is merely coincidental.

Denny O'Neil was writing in all eras concerned.

David said...

Oh, who would buy the cow when I give the milk away for free?

Free milk! Free Milk!

Actually, a book like that sounds fascinating to me...

Bully said...

Sniff. No one ever wants to buy me.

Anonymous said...

It is a weird synergy, like comic writers kind of started with the classic sensibilities and by natural progression, followed along the same literary path.
If DC is trying to go back to the heroic way of old, but keep certain modern aspects, does that create a new conception, or will it just become the new Classic style and somewhere down the line we'll have mainstream heroes along the line of V?

Anonymous said...

Great post, though I'd hardly say physical courage is devalued in Silver Age Marvel. The psychological struggle stuff certainly rings true. Both my favourite comic book moments are about facing despair. "That" sequence from "The Final Chapter" (Amazing Spider-man #33) and the Thing's battle with Doctor Doom in FF #40.
Perhaps I don't understand what you mean by "consolation", Scipio, when you write about Marvel. Is it consoling that even your heroes can despair? Surely the answer can only be "yes" if you're inspired to scorn despair?

Scipio said...

I don't know what refence to "consolation" you are making...

David C said...

If DC is trying to go back to the heroic way of old, but keep certain modern aspects, does that create a new conception, or will it just become the new Classic style and somewhere down the line we'll have mainstream heroes along the line of V?

If you go by the Strauss and Howe "generational" theory (which I generally think has a lot of merit), we might expect a neo-Classical "Golden Age" style to re-emerge.

Though if it's a creator based thing, it might not show much for a while. Seems to me that the vast majority of current comics creators now are Boomers and Xers. The "Millenial" generation (born 1982-2003, analogous in our cycle to the G.I. "Greatest Generation") hasn't really shown up prominently in comics yet, at least not with much power to shape or reshape things.

Matthew E said...

Yeah... but what generation(s) were the founders and early creators of DC and Marvel? If they were all G.I.s, that would be a good comparison. And, thinking about it, I guess they were, mostly.

inkdestroyedmybrush said...

Certainly we see the joeseph Campbell enduring power of Myth for uour best gfour-color heroes to have the flexiblity to reshape themselves into the modern world; irreguarless of whether "modern" is 1960, 1970 or 2000.

The oddballs to this progression are certainly ones that stand out as well: Moore's Saga of the Swamp Thing in the 1980's, Starman of the the 1990's which fits more neatly into the Romantic (which is a term that Jack Knight would probably disavow while secretly appreciating).

I think that we will have to wait and see the progression of the society to have the reflection of our fears/hopes/dreams show up in our mass fiction. horror movies have always been a perfect barometer for that sort of thing: cultural fears made manifest as zombies, attacking aliens, possession, demons from within, etc. So what sort of heroes will we see, and what kind of mirror will they be?

Batman is certainly a very good measuring stick on this: the grim vigilante born out of the depression. Friendly in the 1950's, when the world clearly had no use for the disrespectful lawman who cloaks himself in the shadows ala the red menace. Batman in the 1980's, for instance had to endure a decade plus of people asking if he was psycho, and now he comes across as the voice of reason. The realist. Seriously. What a turnaround for his character. As Steve Englehart wrote in 1977, "sometimes my world goes crazy." Are there any of us in 2006 that don't feel that way these days?

and which version of the Question are we using for this analysis? Denny o'neil's or Steve Ditko's? Where does Booster gold fit into this?

David C said...

Matthew, some quick web surfing shows that the early creators at DC and Marvel were virtually all of the G.I. generation (born 1901-1924), and mostly in the latter half of it. I couldn't find a single example who *wasn't*, actually - and even some of the publishers were (e.g. Timely's Martin Goodman, born 1910.)

Closest I could find for a famous comics person from the earlier "Lost" Generation is Hal Foster, creator of "Prince Valant," born 1892. But that makes sense too, as the strips were where older "established" talents might be found, and comic *books* were clearly a young and hungry man's game.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Excellent, excellent stuff.

Though it does raise the question of what comes next. Could the conception of heroism be cyclical? Is that even possible?

The knowledge and perspectives gained in the latter stages can't be un-learned. Perhaps a fifth stage that synthesizes elements of the previous four? That seems to be the case for (good) comics these days.

Any thoughts on where it's going?

Scipio said...

Could it be cyclical?

I think it definitely is cyclical. We have returned to the Golden Age / Neoclassical heroic model. The models naturally adjust a bit to circumstances and times but the core conceptions seem to remain the same.

Scipio said...

"Denny O'Neil was writing in all eras concerned."

I think even Denny O'Neil's writing is not immune to progression, Mike.

Scipio said...

"If you go by the Strauss and Howe "generational" theory (which I generally think has a lot of merit), we might expect a neo-Classical "Golden Age" style to re-emerge."

And so it has, David; so it has.