Thursday, April 12, 2012

GENRE-FENCES MAKE BAD THEORY

"In the beginning was the word"-- John 1.1

"In the beginning was the act"-- Goethe, FAUST.

In CHALLENGE OF THE SUPER-IDIOM LIST I stated:

I'm aware of no list that seeks to list any protagonists, superheroic or otherwise, according to the Fryean mythos to which they belong.
The lack of such a list isn't surprising; a list-maker has to be highly motivated to delve into the Fryean categories, particularly those of the mythoi Frye may or may not have derived from Theodor Gaster. 

What one usually gets, to extend the above parallel somewhat, is not meditations on "the word"-- the immense and imponderable potential principle that theoretically unites all manifestations of literature-- but on "the act," or rather the "acts" of individual genre-boundaries; the things that distinguish one hypothetical genre from another.  "Genre" is, as I also noted in the above essay, much "more limited" than the Fryean mythos.  To think upon genre is to meditate on limitations, on the fences that keep one genre apart from another, as will be the case with the online essay I'll be critiquing here.

First, though, what is genre?  Merriam-Webster says:
a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content
This is perfectly adequate, though when dealing with modern popular culture-- my sole concern in this essay-- I like my own definition best: "genre" is any category in which works are included on the basis of similarities in terms of (1) character, (2) setting, or (3) plot.

For instance, the "mystery-genre" is often spoken of as a thing separate from the "detective-genre."  The principal reason for this separation is that the former genre is based on a type of plot, but it can include the solution of a mystery even if there is no character who is a detective.  Thus any number of old-dark-house stories, in which protagonists merely stumble over the mystery's solution, are mysteries but not detective stories. By contrast, to be in the "detective genre" the story must have an actual detective.

Portmanteau genres present similar category-hopping opportunities.  If a work is labeled a "western," it has been principally characterized by its setting.  However, a "horror-western" merges the concern for setting with that of a horror-based plot.  It is of course possible to reverse the emphasis: perhaps transferring story-tropes of the western into some non-western setting and still using them for horrific plot-purposes-- but then no one would call said work a "horror-western."

As far as combining aspects of genres, that of the superhero-- which I view as not a thing in itself, but as one potential genre amid other related types-- is certainly marked by this kind of trope-transference. 

In an essay entitled "Flash is the only DC superhero," Scipio of the blog ABSORBASCON argues this assertion largely on the purity of Flash's generic nature:


"The Flash is an actual superhero. An otherwise regular guy who gains superpowers and fights crime with them. He fights villains who are mostly normal people with superpowers or the technological equivalent thereof. It’s cops and robbers but on the superheroic level."

In contrast, other DC heroes are defined by their alliances to other genres:

"Batman is a detective in a detective genre."

"Superman is a science fiction character."

"Wonder Woman is a fantasy character."

Scipio notes that the Flash, like Superman, has numerous "sci-fi elements," but argues that "... they aren’t the core of his world; they are just the added elements that take him and his world from the mundane to the “super.”


In keeping with my newly announced "51 percent rule," I decided that the only way to determine if Scipio was right in his determination that Flash's "sci-fi elements" weren't "the core of his world" would be to demonstrate this statistically.  So I used the first issue of SHOWCASE PRESENTS: THE FLASH as a starting-point. I made two columns: one for all Flash-adventures in which the hero faced any sort of "sci-fi" menace, ranging from aliens, cloud-monsters and talking gorillas (Grodd knows why), while the other column only included relatively mundane adventures, whether it was the hero fighting car thieves or costumed super-villains who only used science-fiction as a quick gimmick, rather than borrowing from the tropes of science-fiction in other media.

As it happens, Scipio's observation is borne out by the statistical method. In the first column, out of a total of 38 stories (including those of the backup "Kid Flash"), only fifteen are strongly determined by the tropes of science fiction, while twenty-three lack these or any other generic elements.  Thus it seems to be true that Flash's adventures, in this volume at least, are dominated by the sense of the hero as "an otherwise regular guy who gains superpowers and fights crime with them."

Nevertheless, while Scipio is right in this one specific respect, I don't take seriously the notion that "superhero" is defined by a lack of tropes from other genres, which seems Scipio's implicit definition.

Returning to my simplified definition of genre, "superhero" would seem to be a genre defined first and foremost by "character."  I have seen attempts (not Scipio's) in which a given fan tries to confine superheroes to modern-day cities, thus making it impossible for costumed cowboys like the Two-Gun Kid or the Black Rider to qualify. I reject these as mere fannish preference, not logical deduction, for the irrelevance of setting should be confirmed simply by the existence of a superhero feature set in the future, as evidenced by DC's "Legion of Super-Heroes."

Similarly, "plot" cannot be the determining factor, if only by Scipio's own reasoning, where he claims that Flash uses "sci-fi elements" but is not determined by them.  Scipio does not cite compelling evidence as to why, say, Superman is defined by such elements, and I believe that at differing periods, Superman's feature could be just as light on "sci-fi elements" as Flash's.

Therefore "character" would seem to be the determining factor in the superhero genre.  From this affiliation it would follow that a superhero is no less a superhero for having plot-elements borrowed from science fiction, detective stories or even westerns.  Scipio actually does argue that Aquaman is "a western character in a frontier setting," though I respond that no one is any more likely to term Aquaman a genuine western than, say, the sci-fi film OUTLAND.  On  a tangential note, I think a case could be made that Silver Age Aquaman was every bit as much of a "fantasy" as Wonder Woman in its Golden/Silver Age manifestations, though over time both of them became closer to being "regular superheroes."




The superhero genre, then, is a character-determined genre like that of the detective-genre mentioned above.  I note in passing that many fans think of "the detective" as a modern-day figure, going back in history no further than Sherlock Holmes but more often represented by Philip Marlowe and Miss Marple, a conception which parallels Scipio's conception of the regular-guy superhero.  However, detective prose fiction of recent years has undergone a positive mania for transferring the concept of the detective to a wide variety of historical periods: ancient Rome, medieval Europe, etc.  Thus for me, even a superhero in a different period-- whether an uncanny type like the original GHOST RIDER or marvelous types like the Ditko STARMAN-- still belongs to the superhero idiom no matter how many other genre-tropes may intrude.  Thus I certainly don't think modern-day superheroes with SF or fantasy tropes, like Superman or Wonder Woman, are any less "true" superheroes than the Flash.

ADDENDA: One of my correspondents seemed unclear on the applicability ot the Legion to this definition, so I wrote the following:


"To clarify a bit more, one of my points is that, given that "Legion of Super-Heroes" actually has the word "superhero" in its title. This suggests to me that, in a colloquial sense at least, DC Comics felt confident that their readership would recognize the feature as being about superheroes in the future, rather than thinking (along with my target Scipio) that the Legion's sci-fi aspects would detract from readers thiniking of it as a "superhero book.

Thus I deduce that from a marketing standpoint (whatever one thinks of the theoretical standpoint) a character's status as a "superhero" trumps the time-period or trappings of that character."


































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