Q: When is a superhero not a superhero?Many fans would not find that answer either funny (which it isn't supposed to be) or intriguing (which it is). Not a few would see no point in slicing and dicing the qualities of what makes superheroes run, much less superheroes across different mythoi (or as those fans would doubtless call them, "genres.")
A: When the *dynamis* expressed by either the plot-functions or character-functions within the corpus of a given superhero's exploits is not commensurate with those characteristic of the pure adventure mythos, aligning rather with another mythos, such as that of irony, drama or comedy.
I do have a point, of course. Having evolved my own definitions for what does and does not belong in the superhero idiom, I find it encumbent on me to formulate reasons as to why I assign a given work in one category or another. Anything else would be mere whim, assignable to Kant's notion of "agreeability" rather than rational judgment.
And then, of course, there's always the additional motivation of having made a wrong judgment in the past oneself.
In this essay I wrote near the conclusion:
...in my "Defining the Superhero" article for COMICS INTERPRETER, I toyed with the notion that Paul Atreides of DUNE might technically fall within the range of the superhero idiom, albeit one in the *mythos* of drama rather than the more normative adventure *mythos.*The above recap is an oversimplification of what I wrote in the INTERPRETER article. I didn't actually bring up any of the complexities of the Fryean mythoi in that article, so I didn't differentiate him from, say, Superman in that respect. Back then I only focused on arriving at a fundamental definition of the superhero as a type of hero associated with the metaphenomenal, though back in 2002 I was still a long way from positing the NUM theory. Only later would I define DUNE as a drama, albeit a drama in an agonistic mode (term defined here).
Similar questions of categorization arose in the three-part essay series ADVENTURE-COMEDY VS. COMEDY-ADVENTURE, from which the above Q/A was taken. In all of these essays I contrasted an example of some superhero-ish work in which "elements" of either comedy or adventure predominated, though I usually didn't break down the elements specifically, as the first quote specifies, into those of either plot or character. I did do so in this essay, analyzing DOCTOR WHO and STARGATE, but those were both negative examples, works that did not fall into my category of the "pure adventure."
The usefulness of the plot/character dichotomy in that essay impacts on my intention to make my categorization process as rigorous as possible. For instance, if I wish to make a wiki-list of all superhero works that fall into the adventure mythos, that list would consist of:
All works of "pure adventure" (in which both plot and character clearly evoke adventurous *dynamis*
Works in which the plot alone conveys the adventurous *dynamis* and overrides the character-*dynamis*, which belongs to another mythos
Works in which the characters alone convey the adventurous *dynamis* and override the plot-*dynamis*, which belongs to another mythos
As per my remarks on DUNE, often two of the most easily intertwined mythoi are that of adventure and that of drama. Therefore I'll now cite five examples of works in which (a) adventure dominates plot and character, (b) drama dominates plot or character, and (c) adventure dominates plot or character. Since in KNOWNING THE DYNAMICS FROM THE DYNAMIC I used the TV franchise STARGATE as a negative example, it amused me to have all five examples "follow a star."
STAR WARS serves as an unreserved example of the "pure adventure," in which both plot and characters evoke the dynamis of adventure. One can certainly detect elements of drama, comedy and even irony in the film-series (much as I did with four other franchises in this essay). But few would debate that STAR WARS is first and foremost an adventure film-series, though naturally many would not agree with my assigning Luke Skywalker to the superheroic idiom.
As noted above I've already given a negative example, so I'll recapitulate what I said about STARGATE in KNOWING:
Over time the first serial and its epigoni took on an increasing resemblance to the "starship melodramas" of the STAR TREK franchise. I don't think STARGATE was ever as much about what Faulkner called "the human heart in conflict with itself," as all of the TREKshows have arguably been. But in the STARGATE franchise the adventure-mythos became somewhat dennatured. I view this as a lack of heroic *dynamis* within the overall plot-structure, rather than within the concept of the characters
So in STARGATE the mythos of drama pervades the plotting of the series, overshadowing characters who would otherwise fit adventure-archetypes.
Another negative example, but one in which the mythos of drama dominates the characters rather than the plot, would be the 1978-80 versions of BATTLESTAR: GALACTICA. The plot, in which noble humans repeatedly faced the menace of Cylon invaders, clearly takes inspiration from STAR WARS, but the characters lack the *dynamis* of the adventure-mythos, tending toward drama in its manifestation of "melodrama."
Thus neither STARGATE nor the first BATTLESTAR: GALACTICA make it onto my master list (one shouldn't even have to ask about the second GALACTICA, a "pure drama" in all respects).
On to positive examples that *would* make my hypothetical list:
DC Comics' STARMAN, in most of the iterations of the franchise, has usually been a "pure adventure." However, the Starman introduced by James Robinson, whose continuing series ran from 1994-2001, exemplifies the type in which the plot is the main source of the adventure-dynamis. Jack Knight, the serial's hero, is from the first framed as an eternally reluctant fighter, who ends the series by getting out of the superhero business and embracing family life. This *dynamis* fits the archetypal characters of drama more than adventure, but Robinson is largely successful in using the characters' dramatic arcs to ramp up the spirit of adventure, as opposed to its negative example, STARGATE, in which dramatic plots dominates adventurous characters.
My final example must be one in which characters with the adventure-*dynamis* override a plot with a dramatic emphasis. My choice here is the 1978 American STAR BLAZERS, adapted from the Japanese anime TV-series SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO (which I have not seen in its original form). Like GALACTICA, most of the story took place aboard a ship with a multitudinous crew, which of course was exploited for melodramatic plot-developments. However, in contrast to GALACTICA, the heroics of main characters Derek Wildstar and Mark Venture against the formidable "Leader Desslock" received far more emphasis than any of the melodramatic situations aboard ship. Like many Japanese anime of the period, STAR BLAZERS taps a vein of world-weariness that may stem from Japanese culture's reactions to postwar anomie. Nevertheless, even if the main heroes are not quite as uncompromised as Luke Skywalker, their *dynamis* is allied to that of those space-opera heroes who conform to the superheroic idiom.
I realize that these five examples by themselves would not be sufficient to prove my case. I believe that I could make a full-fledged textual analysis of plot and character motifs in all five works that would so prove it. But that would be an undertaking too complex for a blogpost, and detractors would simply disregard sustained critical analysis if it did not lead to some preformed conclusion, like the popular "Superheroes are fascist," which still comes up from time to time. Given those circumstances, I'm content to let this argument rest with no more than an outline of my methodology.