I haven't written in great detail about what I have termed "the superhero idiom" since this essay in July 2008. Of course a great deal of what I've blogged here has laid the groundwork for exploring such an idiom within the sphere of a greater *mythos*, termed "romance" by Northrop Frye and rechristened "adventure" by me. But now that I've provided on this blog an overall sketch as to how that sphere functions in respect to other spheres, it's time to narrow my focus once more.
Though I wrote several essays and/or reviews on topics superheroic during the 1970s and 1980s for assorted fan-magazines, the genesis of my current efforts to formulate a theory for the superhero idiom can be seen in my essay "Defining the Superhero" in COMICS INTERPRETER #1 (2002 or thereabouts). I've gone beyond a lot of the rough theorization presented in that essay, but one concept I expressed therein still has relevance here. Just as Charles Derry sought to define the "thriller" genre in terms of what the name of the genre said about the genre's content, I sought to define "superhero" by breaking down the word "superhero" into its constituent elements in order to ask what the word says about the genre's content.
However, when you split "superhero" into its two elements, "super" and "hero," one gets a graphic lesson in the difference between "that which is merely complicated" and "that which is fucking COMPLEX."
The element "super" is the merely complicated one. Since "super" means roughly "that which is beyond" some ordinary level or status, I interpret it as being an indicator of what lit-critics call "the fantastic" and what I call "the metaphenomenal," which term is explained in this essay. There are perhaps countless particular variations on how a hero can be super/fantastic/metaphenomenal, but all can be seen as iterations of a single idiomatic pattern which is the mirror-image of the "isophenomenal" pattern; that is, one where the phenomena presented do NOT go beyond a perceived ordinariness.
"Hero," however, becomes excruciatingly complex due to colloquial conflation of two overlapping but non-identical meanings: (1) a figure who has done something exemplary, whether in fiction or real life, or (2) the so-called "main character" in a story, whose centricity may well be the only thing exemplary about him, her, or even "it."
That "it" qualification will become important in Part 2, by way of sussing out whether it is possible for an "it" to be a hero in the sense of (2), no matter how little "it" may be one in the sense of (1).