Thursday, September 16, 2010

Barry Allen defeats Genre Blindness

This panel...

is the beginning of the end.

The end of what? The end of innocence -- or at least, or genre blindness -- in comic books.

Genre blindness, as any fan of the TV tropes wiki knows, is the obliviousness that characters have toward the conventions of their own genre of fiction. Horror characters always head toward suspicious noises instead of away from them, rom-com characters deem endearing the kinds of stalker behavior that a real person would get a restraining order against, and DeGrassi students never notice that every time they say "whatever it takes", they are doomed to some horrible fate, failure, or embarrassment.

DeGrassi's "Drew"
I'm guessing that in this case "whatever it takes" would be
about three pomegranate cosmos
and a promise not to tell anyone the morning after.

As the flux capacitor is to time travel, so is genre blindness to genre fiction.

For decades, comic books pretty faithfully inked between the lines of their own genre blindness. Villains created death-traps rather than just sniping a hero, supporting characters saw nothing odd about middle-school kids spending their nights fighting gun-toting gangsters on rooftops, and heroes just assumed the villain must have drowned when he fell in the Nearby Natural Body of Water.

Yup. That's right, Robin;
we'll never see that pesky "Joker" fellow, again.

Genre blindness was nearly absolute in comics. Until...

a police detective decided to act like a real police detective.

Barry Allen, forensics expert, decides
to follow a line of supply to locate a suspect.

Yup. Barry Allen decided to take a more "real word" approach to tracking down perps.

Oh, everyone makes fun of Barry. Lord knows I do. He's a milquetoast, he's a geek, he's totally whipped by the ultimate shrew, Iris "Just Plain Mean" Allen.

And yet, Barry Allen is the DC man who sets trends, breaks boundaries, and flouts all rules.

Who led the return of superheroes to the front of comicdom and started the Silver Age? Who actually crossed the line and killed his archenemy? Who routinely flouted all laws of physics, even beyond the normal "accepting the superpower as real" rule, in nearly every story? Barry Allen.

Sorry, folks. We all love the Big Three, but on the whole they don't set trends, they just reflect them.
You never saw Barry Allen going in for this sort of pop-culture folderol;
Superman simply does not know shame.

As far as the medium goes, "the Trinity" simply aren't leaders. Conceptual innovation usually starts with edgier, less valuable properties, and spreads upward. That's a thesis we may very well explore later.

Certainly, the Trinity didn't blaze any trails away from Genre Blindness. Heck, they embraced Genre Blindness like a warm blanky. Genre blindness requires them to ignore the fact that, hey, those purple suits, and cat-shaped planes, and killer umbrellas.? The villains must get them somewhere; if we can figure that out we'd have a lead on finding them.

What would the Big Three do to find their enemies? Batman would have put a fake notice in the newspaper about the priceless Van Landorpf emerald being on public display as a way to lure the Joker/Penguin/Catwoman out into the open. Superman would have left Lois or Jimmy find the foe, probably by getting attacked. Wonder Woman -- oh, heck, she would have been off marching with the Holliday Girls, don't fool yourself. Nazis can't resist attacking all-girl college marching bands. A lot of guys are like that, actually.

It was Barry "the Flash" Allen who decided to take a more 'real-word' approach to finding his foes. Barry Allen just asked the same kind of question the police might ask in the real world: where did the crook get that wacky one-of-a-kind outfit? They must have bought them somewhere and if we can find out where, we can trace our way to the perp.

As goofy as this sounds -- particularly since Barry himself doesn't have anyone else make his superbly tailored and elaborate costume -- it is still a casting off of a genre blindness. As such I think it was the first step toward the world of comics we know now, where writers constantly apologize for or subvert the conventions of the genre.

What do you think?


The One True GL said...

"Cool it, Big Daddy!"???

No wonder, I've never been a Jimmy fan. And what kind of dance is Superman performing??? Is that one of the Beatles in the background???

He's a milquetoast, he's a GREEK, he's totally whipped by the ultimate shrew, Iris "Just Plain Mean" Allen.

Oh Wait, my verification word is comidis (which sounds like the ancient Greek father of comics). Scipio, not only are you awesome but your blogger-fu is so advanced that verification words bend to your will.

Question: Does Barry have a Grissom-like or a Horatio-like voice in his head, telling him to follow the evidence?

SallyP said...

This is an interesting theory. If they would use the newly resurrected Barry in proper CSI fashion, I would be delighted.

But I always LIKED the fact that Barry was a nerd.

Diamondrock said...

Have you *seen* CSI, Sally? The character of Grissom is a complete and total nerd. I think that's part of why my sister is so fond of him.

As for everything else, I fear that you may be right, Scipio. Barry Allen no only ushered in a new era, he in some way defined it by his unconventional actions.

Perhaps it is a good thing that he's returned...

LissBirds said...

I bet whoever that tailor is, he does a lot of work for Harvey Dent, too.

plok said...

Now that is an essay question like my old Phil. of Sci. prof used to give: a deceptively compacted one.

I guess I think the worser writers of today would've gotten there anyway, since I take them to be less informed by comics history than by external commentary on well-known conventions: in other words I think their subversion/apologies start from jokes about where the bathroom is on the Starship Enterprise, and aren't these old shows so stupid, and consequently probably believe their own genre-blindness-busting is pretty darn au courant...forgetting that Star Trek joke itself is so old it's entered the public domain already.

Conversely, I think without the whimsical subversions of the past the better writers of recent times might not have been so interested in toying with conventions themselves. So I guess I'm saying I think this might be the first step towards Watchmen, but not necessarily towards Civil War.

(Wait, what's up with that reference, is it you who's been away or is it me?)

Alcides Gra├ža said...

Your analysis seems fine. It's not a "breaking the fourth wall" moment, but it certainly is an instance of a character questioning the (sillier) premises of the genre.

My only question is - was that the very first instance of confronting genre blindness?

Scipio said...

GL: typo corrected, thank you. And Superman is doing the "Krypton Crawl". At least, to the best of his ability.

LissBirda: 'That tailor' is Paul Gambi, a recurring Flash character, whose brother Peter Gambi was Black Lightning's mentor.

Plok: Heh, thanks for noticing; a lot of bloggers, well, don't strive for compactness.

Alicides: I honestly don't know, but it's the first one I really notice as a standout example. I'm certainly interesetd in hearing others.

Gene Phillips said...

I remember a Golden Age FLASH adventure in which his three goofy sidekicks became temporarily aware they were in a comic book and began to migrate from panel to panel a little.

Is that genre awareness? Media awareness? Or what?

plok said...


Oh man, that made me laugh.

Anonymous said...

Well, of course we know there's a bathroom on the Enterprise - because Ensign Chekhov was holed up there for two whole seasons with a space version of Montezuma's revenge. Which is why we didn't see him until the third season. :-p

Anonymous said...

I love your site, thank you for coming back to it.

Michael said...

So we should cheer Barry being a killer? wonder DC comics is shite now.

Scipio said...

Michael, what would make you think that all the developments listed were being praised as positive changes? They weren't.

Looking to express that anti-DC negativity...?

Redforce said...

Excellent analysis as usual, Scipio.
Personally, I would like to see a 'mix-n-match' approach- Genre blindness alongside trope awareness DONE SPARINGLY, IN SERVICE TO THE STORY. What I DON'T like is writers that think they are 'ironic' and 'hip' and succeed in showing pretty much contempt for the superheroic genre.

Mr. Long said...

Redforce said...
Excellent analysis as usual, Scipio.
Personally, I would like to see a 'mix-n-match' approach- Genre blindness alongside trope awareness DONE SPARINGLY, IN SERVICE TO THE STORY. What I DON'T like is writers that think they are 'ironic' and 'hip' and succeed in showing pretty much contempt for the superheroic genre.

Bolded for agreement... :P

Anonymous said...

Excellent, as usual.

Lately, I've been thinking about another form of genre blindness--the fact that the hero always has to play by the villain's rules. I've been reading lots of 50s Superman stories, and they all seem to follow this generic convention. After all, Superman, if allowed to use the full extent of his powers, could usually defeat Luthor by the middle of page 2. And so, to keep the story going, Superman always has to defeat the villain (or Lois) at his/her own game. Luthor is committing crimes based on the Periodic Table of Elements? Superman invents his own element (Supermanium, of course) to defeat him.

(Though I'm sure it must have occurred earlier, the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy draws his gun on the sword wielding baddie is the first time I can recall being made aware of this convention. Of course, like your Flash example, we are made aware through the genre's violation.)

Cyrus said...
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