What Makes a Super Hero? Defining the Super Hero Genre

Superman Gary Frank Mummyboon

As part of a lengthy piece I’m writing about Gatchaman Crowds it became necessary to define what constitutes the Super Hero genre, and then that short paragraph spun out into an entirely new post.

Because defining what is and isn’t a Super Hero story is actually very difficult.

You wouldn’t think it would be. It is easy to look at the classic Superman as the archetypal Super Hero and go; powers, costume, secret identity, fights Super Villains that there is a Super Hero.

But it isn’t quite that easy. Powers? Batman doesn’t have them and he’s probably the 2nd most famous Super Hero of all time. Costumes? None of the Runaways have them, Smallville didn’t have them, Hellboy doesn’t wear one but these are all Super Heroes. Secret Identity? Everyone knows Tony Stark is Iron Man. Fights Super Villains? Surely that’s set in stone? But then there aren’t many Super villains in Watchmen, in V for Vendetta, in Miracleman and I would argue all of those are Super Hero stories.

The basic problem with defining the Super Hero genre is that genres are a mix of what can broadly be termed iconographic elements and structural elements (or alternatively connotative and denotative).

Star Wars Poster Mummyboon

Iconographic elements refer to the things in the setting that define the genre or sometimes the style with which the setting is portrayed. If you have aliens, ray guns, robots, spaceships, cyborgs, etc then you have a science fiction story. Similarly elves, dwarves, magic, monsters and wizards are all iconographic elements of the fantasy genre.

Iconographic elements are the easiest for the audience to latch onto but they’re sometimes the least useful in determining what genre a particular story is. Star Wars, for example, has space ships and ray guns but it also has magic, is it SF or Fantasy (many would argue it is a hybrid genre like science fantasy or space opera). Alien has aliens and spaceships but that’s a horror film, right? Spaceballs has space ships and aliens but that’s a comedy.

Conan the Barbarian Mummyboon

Iconographic elements are usually only signifiers of the structural elements that determine who the characters are, what the narrative beats will be and what the aim of the story is. For example, you can tell a science fiction without any of the normal SF iconography because SF is always concerned with answering the question “what if?” SF starts from a stand point of asking a question, usually about humanity and our relationship with technology, and then extrapolating out the outcomes of that question. The Man from Earth for example is undoubtedly an SF story, it asks what if there was an immortal man, but is set entirely in one room of a house and features no technology beyond modern day. The answer of “why is he immortal?” might be magic but that doesn’t make this a fantasy. That’s because fantasies, structurally, are concerned with a quest arc. Find this thing or go to this place to achieve this goal (usually defeating the baddie), and the meat of the story is the journey to get the thing or get to the place. LoTR, Narnia, His Dark Materials, Krull, the list of fantasy stories that conform to this template is endless.

Then you get the genres where the purpose of the story is the main thing defining the structure. Horror and Comedy are the clearest example, if the story aims to make you scared, it’s a Horror, if it aims to make you laugh, it’s a Comedy. Horror does have iconographic elements (ghosts, monsters, vampires, slashers) but if you can scare your audience you’ve made a horror whether or not those iconographic elements are in your story.

The thing that makes Super Hero stories hard to define as a genre is the lack of a firm structural element that is shared across them. Because most Super Hero stories appear in comics, and because comics are a serialised medium, creators are constantly having to think up new things for their characters to do.

And that’s hard. So they steal stuff.

They take inspiration from other genres and have their characters shift into that genre for a storyline. In the X-Men alone I can think of Horror stories (the one where Kitty fights a N’Gari alone at Christmas), Fantasy Epics (the Kulan Gath crossover, Inferno, the recent storyline rescuing Nightcrawler from Heaven), Space Opera (The Dark Phoenix Saga), Mythological tales (the time they all went to Asgard), Science Fiction (Days of Future Past), Comedy (loads but “Girl’s Night Out” jumps to mind) and many, many more. The X-Men switch genres with every story and so do The Avengers, The JLA and any other long running Super Hero team.

And this Post-Modern mixing and matching applies to the iconographic elements as well. The Avengers have had on their team Thor (from mythology), The Vision (an SF robot), Dr Strange (a Fantasy magician), Luke Cage (a Blaxploitation character of all things), Blade (a vampire hunter with his roots in Horror) and yet The Avengers is unquestionably a Super Hero team.

This Post-Modern mixing and matching of elements is actually one of the things I absolutely adore about Super Hero comics but it does make it bloody hard to say what is and isn’t a Super Hero.

So let’s go back to Superman and look at those key things we drew out of him and see what is and isn’t necessary to be a Super Hero.

The Key Things from Superman:

Super Powers

Costume

Secret Identity

Saves People

Fights Super-Villains

 

Super Powers

Goku Mummyboon

The presence of super powers would at first glance seem to be the biggest thing making your main character a Super Hero but it’s actually the weakest criteria of them all. There are Super powered characters in plenty of stories that would never be classed as Super Hero, indeed the leads in nearly every Fantasy story written have some kind of extra human ability. Harry Potter, for example, if he was in the Marvel Universe would put on a costume and go fight bad guys but nobody would dream of calling him a Super Hero.

And it’s just as true on the flip-side. Batman is easily the 2nd most iconic Super Hero there is and he has no powers. And he’s not alone, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Shang Chi, all the bat family; there is a long tradition on non-powered Super Heroes.

What all of these characters can do though is something that ordinary people can’t. Batman may not have powers but he is fantastically wealthy almost to the point of being able to do whatever he likes, he has gadgets and weapons ordinary people can’t access, he is amazingly good at martial arts, he’s an acrobat and he’s the world’s greatest detective. There are plenty of reasons you can’t be Batman and it isn’t because your parents are alive.

This is probably the number 1 iconographic element of the Super Hero, off the top of my head I can only think of a single example of a Super Hero with no abilities beyond normal man and that’s Kick Ass, which is sort of a cheat. However I can name plenty of Super powered individuals in other genres so on its own, this isn’t enough.

The Costume

Batman Neal Adams Mummyboon

Of course, you think! I know what Superman and Batman have in common, they both wear capes and underpants on the outside! Surely it is all in the costume. Batman may have no powers but he and all his friends dress up in silly costumes to fight baddies, that’s what makes a Super Hero.

Certainly if you’ve designed a character with a cape, tights and underpants on the outside then without question there is a Super Hero in your story. However, what is and isn’t considered a costume swiftly gets into dodgy territory. The Hulk doesn’t wear a costume, he wears normal street clothes but he is immediately recognisable as the Hulk because he’s huge and bright green. Hellboy doesn’t have a costume but with red skin, a tail, devil horns and an enormous right hand he sure does stand out.

A better way to phrase this would be that Super Heroes have a distinctive appearance that separates them from normal people. That kind of phrase includes Superman, Batman, The Hulk and Hellboy. It even includes many non-costumed Heroes. The Runaways are probably the poster kids for Heroes without costumes but Nico’s Staff, Chase’s Fistigons and Arsenic’s purple hair and dinosaur give them a distinctive design that would stand out on the street.

Runways Mummyboon

The only examples of Heroes without a distinctive visual that I can think of come from media outside comics like Clark in Smallville and there is a very good reason for this that again is due to the medium. Comics require you to evoke a recognisable character over multiple panels and multiple issues and often drawn by different artists. With the limitations of printing technology back when most Super Heroes were designed you have to do this using only 4 colours and a few quite thick lines. The end result is that Superman’s face can look quite different from artist to artist and panel to panel and it becomes impossible to recognise him just based on the face. So how do you ensure your audience recognises him? You give him something iconic like his s shaped jehri curl and his costume.

In live action though the audience can recognise the actor’s face so there is no need to have these distinguishing visual characteristics. When you start thinking about other comics, comic strip and animation characters though you soon realise that the stipulation “a distinctive appearance that separates them from normal people.” Is far too broad. For starters it seems to absorb most shonen anime characters. Think about Goku in Dragonball, with his monkey tail and red gi he stands out from the background crowd but nobody would call him a Super Hero. How about Edward in Full Metal Alchemist, very distinctive with his red coat and cyborg limbs but not remotely a Super Hero. Hell you could argue that this rule applies to Charlie Brown, Homer Simpson and Tintin and none of those are Super Heroes.

Secret Identity

Spider-Man Mark Bagley Mummyboon

Ah but the key thing about the costume is that it signifies the Super Hero’s secret identity. Clark Kent puts the costume on and now he’s Superman, not Clark Kent. The world may make fun of Peter Parker but when dons his tights the world will love Spider-Man.

The Secret Identity is a great story telling device creating tension between the private life of the character and their adventures as a Super Hero. It generates a huge number of plot devices that comics have reused for decades; “I have to do an important thing but this villain is attacking the city at the same time,” “oh no, the villain has discovered my secret identity and now can threaten my loved ones,” “oh no, a villain is attacking and I’m in my secret identity, how will I escape to change into costume?”  It’s such a good device for generating plots that it’s been used for tons of stories that have nothing to do with Super Heroes. Hannah Montana for example. In fact it pre-dates the Super Hero going all the way back to at least The Scarlet Pimpernel. Now some argue that this makes The Scarlet Pimpernel the earliest Super Hero (he arguably is actually) but I would say that using this device does not make your story part of the Super Hero genre.

And vice versa, not all Super Heroes have secret identities. In fact at this point I’d wager the majority of Super Heroes do not have a secret identity. Amongst the major marvel Heroes Captain America, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Hulk, Black Widow, She-Hulk, all the X-Men,  Captain Marvel, The Guardians of the Galaxy and arguably Thor all have identities known to the public at large. It’s basically Spider-Man and some teenagers with secret identities these days.

But notice I didn’t refer to them as Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Clint Barton and Natasha Romanov. I used their codenames because they all have them. Whether or not their civilian identity is a secret or not most Super Heroes draw a distinction between a personal life and a heroic alter ego. The world may know Steve Rogers is Captain America but he’s not actually being Cap until he puts the mask on.

And notably this excludes a lot of those shonen manga Heroes. Goku, Naruto, Ichigo and Luffy are always Goku, Naruto, Ichigo and Luffy whether they’re fighting bad guys or eating food. They don’t have some normal identity they retreat to. Interestingly this doesn’t include most Magical Girl characters or Tokusetsu characters (Power Rangers, Kanen Rider, Ultraman) all of which feel inherently more Super Heroey to me. This idea of an alternate identity then seems crucial to the definition of a Super Hero.

I propose the rule then is “Super Heroes have some kind of alternate identity signified by a code name.”

Saves People

Superman Saving Someone Mummyboon

Super Heroes are Heroes, that means they save people.

Really? Have you read a Batman story in recent years? I can’t remember the last time I saw him on-panel save an innocent life. Punch thugs? Yup. Do some detective work? Yup. Catch someone falling off a bridge. I can remember something like it happening in Batman #1 3 years ago but since then, nada.

But there is a larger context to consider here. Batman might not be catching falling civilians or rescuing kids from fires but by his actions fighting villains he is saving people in another way. In the current Year Zero Arc, The Riddler has engineered a situation where electricity isn’t working in Gotham City, outside help is barred from entering and people are dying. By outsmarting the Riddler and defeating him physically Batman puts to an end that situation and stops more people dying. By punching the bad guy he saves people’s lives.

My slightly more nuanced way of putting it would be:

“By their direct actions or the consequences thereof the Super Hero acts to saves lives or improve the quality of lives for others.”

Now again, this is massively broad and encompasses nearly every Fantasy, SF, Action and Western protagonist you can name. In fact it’s more a definition of a hero than s Super Hero. But this to me is one of a two part structural component of the Super Hero genre alongside.

Fights Super Villains

The Joker Mummyboon

To me nothing more defines a Super Hero than that they are thrown into conflict with Super Villains. What’s a Super villain you ask?  Well we can apply the same logic for the iconographic elements, if your antagonist has abilities beyond normal people, a distinctive appearance that marks them out as separate to normal people and some kind of alternate identity then you have a Super Villain.

And the conflict between hero and villain is always resolved in some kind of physical sense. This doesn’t have to mean fighting (although, yeah, 99% of the time a Super Hero story resolves in punching) but it can mean the hero making some Superhuman act of endurance, a Superhuman sacrifice, a physical exertion beyond mortal means or outwitting the villain by hacking a thingy, pressing a thingy or inventing a thingy. But the conflict should be resolved as a result of the hero’s own ability to do things normal humans cannot not just by talking nicely, getting the police involved or some kind of deus ex machina.

Doctor Doom Mummyboon

The great thing about Super Villains for me is that they stand in symbolically for the theme of the story. If you’re writing an X-Men story about how racism is bad you can create a Super Villain that symbolises racism and then have the X-Men punch them to symbolise racism being defeated. Is it subtle? Oh Christ on a bike no. Is it satisfying and cathartic? Oh yes!

For me though the fighting Super Villain thing goes hand in hand with the previous point. If your protagonist is punching Super Villains to get rich, score women or to complete their paid job then you’re not a Super Hero narrative.

Structurally then I’d state that the Super Hero narrative is thus:

“Utilising their abilities beyond those of a normal person and either by their direct actions or the consequences thereof the Super Hero acts to saves lives or improve the quality of lives for others in direct conflict to the intentions of a Super Villain antagonist”

That seems pretty comprehensive right, and narrow enough to only apply to Super Heroes?

Yeah…not so much. Whilst it applies to most Super Hero films I’ve seen recently it also applies to most action films I’ve seen recently, as well as a heck of a lot of Fantasy, SF and even some Westerns.

The problem with trying to define a Super Hero story structurally is that the stories go right back to the roots of western literature. Super Heroes are often described as modern myths and I believe this to be true and structurally the idea of turning the subtext into a text that is resolved via conflict goes all the way back to Gilgamesh. As such it has influenced all stories told ever since and so you find that Super Heroes are really lacking in a set of structural elements to call their own.

After much thought then I’ve defined my Super Hero genre test as follows.

Iconographic

  1. Super Heroes have some kind of alternate identity, usually signified by a code name.
  2. Super Heroes have a distinctive appearance that separates them from normal people.
  3. Super Heroes possess the ability to do something beyond those of normal people.

Structural

  1. Utilising their abilities beyond those of a normal person and either by their direct actions or the consequences thereof the Super Hero acts to saves lives or improve the quality of lives for others in direct conflict to the intentions of a Super villain antagonist.

The test works for me like this. If your character possesses quality 1 and at least one other Iconographic element then they’re a Super Hero. Possessing quality 2 and 3 except in rare occasions does not make them a Super Hero. In addition your character must have been involved in at least one narrative that conforms to the structure of 4. If not then yes they are a Super Hero but they are not involved in stories in the Super Hero genre.

So with those rules established let’s do some tests on some core Super Heroes and some marginals.

Superman – 1234

Superman Mummyboon

Batman – 1234

Spider-Man – 1234

Spider-Man John Romita Mummyboon

Wonder Woman – 1234

Wonder Woman Terry Dodson Mummyboon

Goku – 234 (not a Super Hero)

Goku Chibi Mummyboon

Monkey D. Luffy – 234 (not a Super Hero)

Monky D Luffy Mummyboon

Sailor Moon – 1234 (definitely a Super Hero)

Sailor Moon Mummyboon

The Power Rangers – 1234 (also definitely Super Heroes)

Red Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers Mummyboon

Indiana Jones – 234 (not a Super Hero)

Indiana Jones Mummyboon

James Bond – 34 (so we can stop that argument)

Daniel Craig James Bond Mummyboon

The Scarlet Pimpernel – 1234 (so yup, earliest example of the genre I can find)

The Scarlet Pimpernel Mummyboon

The Shadow – 1234 (although a pulp hero he also works perfectly well as a Super Hero, it’s simply an issue of tone as to which aspects of his character you wish to emphasise)

The Shadow Mummyboon

Harry Potter – 234 (and I’m only giving him 2 for the lightning bolt)

Harry Potter Mummyboon

Kane from Kung Fu – 34 (a hero, not a Super Hero)

Kane from Kung Fu Mummyboon

The Bride from Kill Bill 123 (lack of 4 means you could put the bride in a Super-hero story but she hasn’t been in one yet)

The Bride Kill Bill Mummyboon

V from V for Vendetta 1234

V for Vendetta Mummyboon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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