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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


“Superhero... a heroic character with a selfless, pro-social mission... who is generically distinct, i.e., can be distinguished from characters of related genres (fantasy, science fiction, detective, etc.) by a preponderance of generic conventions..."-- definition of "superhero" from Peter Coogan's SUPERHERO: THE SECRET ORIGIN OF A GENRE (2006), p. 30.

Coogan's book may be the first formal attempt to define the superhero in terms of its narrative construction, as opposed to fans' informal definitions: that the hero needs or does not need a costume, needs to exist in contemporary times or not, and so on.  Plainly Coogan's definition rests entirely upon the divisions made possible by "generic conventions", as did Scipio's attempt, scrutinized here, to confine characters like Batman or Superman within genre-rubrics like "detective fiction" or "science fiction."

(Minor point: given the prior associations given the word "generic," I would prefer "genre-conventions," though as I noted here, I don't like the word "conventions" at the best of times.)

I have no problem with mapping out the functions of genres in terms of their general practice, but I'm leery of seeing them used as "fences" that artificially divide works A, B and C from works X, Y and Z even though all of them share the expressive and tonal qualities one can find in the Fryean *mythoi.*  It's interesting that Coogan cites Northrop Frye in SUPERHERO, though only on one page, referencing Frye's "theory of modes."  Otherwise Coogan's approach seems closer to that of the structuralists, whom Frye did not endorse, as I recall, because they insisted only upon breaking genres down into their component parts and paid little attention to the "total vision" of a work.

Take, as an illustrative example of Coogan's book, his take on Joss Whedon's BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (p. 48), whom Coogan considers "a leading candidate" for "exclusion by genre distinction."  Coogan's reasons are summed up in this essay by Peter Sanderson, which disagrees with Coogan's specific conclusions but not with his concentration on "genre-conventions."  Sanderson does a good job summarizing the ways in which Coogan finds Buffy lacking as a "superhero," as well as registering his own objections to Coogan's substitute term "super hero."  However, the greatest problem I have with Coogan's Buffy-exclusion occurs here:

"...the Slayer is a hero-type that predates the superhero, fitting firmly within the larger horror-genre ... [Buffy's] hero-type descends from actual vampire hunters, including the dhampir... Thus, though the writers of BUFFY draw on superhero conventions, the stories are generically distinct from the superhero genre."
Coogan's literalist interpretation of genre is precisely in the mode of Scipio.  If Buffy's "hero-type" predates the superhero, then she cannot be a superhero, just as Superman cannot be an "actual superhero" because he inherits his dominant tropes from science fiction.

Sanderson also draws attention to many examples in which BUFFY's television scripts do suggest her identity as a "superhero," but his solution to the categorizational dilemna is not much better than Coogan's, as Sanderson terms Buffy a "displaced superhero" simply because she borrows conventions from other genres.

One reason that I choose to emphasize Frye's remarks on his four mythoi  is precisely because I believe it makes it possible to talk about the constitutive nature of popular fiction without getting quite so hamstrung as to what trope belongs to what genre.  For instance, Coogan would have his readers believe that there is a "horror genre" that is so constituted that it is fiercely indepedent of any other genre, be it that of the superhero or (presumably) any other.

And yet, what happens whenever the equally capacious genre of science fiction chooses to do its take on the horror-genre's vampire myths?  Be it Richard Matheson's I AM LEGEND, Curtis Harrington's 1966 QUEEN OF BLOOD, or the "Space Vampire" episode of the teleseries BUCK ROGERS, do these remain within the horror-genre, because they're about vampires?  If so, does that mean that of BUCK ROGERS' 32 episodes, only one is horror, leaving the other 31 to be "actual" science fiction?

This seems to me a messy and arbitrary approach to categorization.  I imagine that others may find my application of the Fryean mythos to pop fiction no more winsome.  But at least an emphasis upon the emotional and expressive core of any given work can avoid some of this tendency to "fence in" tropes that were "born free."

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