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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

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...

Monday, October 8, 2012

DIAL D FOR DEMIHERO PT. 3


Returning now to the hitherto-sketchy idea of “intellectual will” vs. “instinctive will” expressed in this essay.

 
I’ll reiterate that of the four persona-types outlined in HERO VS. VILLAIN, MONSTER VS. VICTIM PART 1, any of them can be “protagonist” or “antagonist” as delineated in AGAIN SUPERHEROIC IDIOMS PART 4. 
 
As a general rule two of the four, the “hero” and the newly christened “demihero,” are the life-affirming forces, while the “villain” and the “monster” exist to thwart the forces of life.  However, experienced readers will be familiar with other permutations. 
 
 
A comics-series like MAN-THING portrays its monstrous protagonist doing good not as a conscious act but in response to instinctive tendencies. 
 
 
 
In the short-lived JOKER series of the 1970s, the titular villain still performed many of the same evil deeds he performed as a Batman antagonist, but in the majority of Joker-stories his efforts had the effect of putting other felons back in the pokey.



 

For simplicity’s sake I choose to define the story’s protagonist not as the person or presence most emphasized in the story—“the focal presence,” the “imaginative center”—but as the character with whom the audience principally identifies, while the antagonist represents whatever forces the protagonist struggles against.  Yet identification and imaginative focus are not the same.  I’ve frequently cited Lewis Carroll here.  One identifies with Alice, but Wonderland provides the audience’s imaginative focal point.

 

Admittedly, the focus is not always so easy to sort out.  In most Batman-Joker stories, it’s a given that Batman is both the identificatory character and the imaginative center.  The Moore-Bolland KILLING JOKE provides a rare exception in that the narrative shifts the imaginative focus to the Joker as it relates a possible origin for the Clown Prince of Crime.  Batman is still predominantly the identificatory character through whom the reader is lessoned in lunacy.  Arguably the hero loses some of his heroic status as he becomes the “Alice” lost in the demented “Wonderland” of the Joker’s madness.

 

I’m aware of a slight tendency on my part to categorize characters as “victims/demiheroes” if they are lacking in dynamicity (Carl Kolchak, Doctor Who) or centricity (Jonathan Harker of the DRACULA novel).
 

Yet that’s not what I meant to communicate when I formulated this schema.  The demihero can be resourceful, can be powerful, can be central to the narrative.  But he must embody “instinctive will” in its life-affirming guise, even as the monster does in its (generally) life-denying guise.

 

In my current analysis, both Doctor Who and Kolchak are heroes of the subcombative type.  Though they lack the *dynamicity* that would make them combative heroes, they do exercise “intellectual will” in order to stymie the forces of disorder.  Bram Stoker’s Jonathan Harker, on the other hand, is a *mesodynamic* type of protagonist who nevertheless ups his game enough to become a key player in the fight against the monstrous focal presence/antagonist Dracula.  Yet I judge that his type of heroism is governed less by a heroic ideal than by the instinct to protect himself, his home and his ingroup against all aggressors.  Thus, he provides a mirror to Dracula, the monster whose main focus is also self-preservation.

 

The instinct of self-preservation, though, does not rule either Batman or the Joker.  Their respective devotions to “order” and to “chaos” are often—though not invariably—framed as intellectual propositions.  The Moore-Bolland KILLING JOKE devotes its narrative to the Gospel According to the Joker, depicting the Joker’s madness as an insight into the true nature of the world.  Frank Miller’s DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, in contrast, depicts the Batman’s vigilante quest as one in which the protagonist breaks man’s law in order to protect a higher law—admittedly one perceived through Batman’s particular blend of ruthlessness and compassion.

 

 

 

By chance I stumbled across a quote that may illuminate some of the differences between these different yet complementary forms of human will.  Following the spinal trauma Christopher Reeve suffered in 1995, the actor wrote in his autobiography STILL ME:

 

“What is a hero?  I remember how easily I’d talk about it, the glib response I repeated so many times.  My answer was that a hero is someone who commits a courageous act without considering the consequences… Now my definition is completely different.  I think a hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to perservere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”

 

Reeve, though he was an actor whose job was to play fictional characters, speaks here of normative, real-world definitions of heroism, making no comment upon the depictions of heroes in fiction.  But his remarks do have application to the archetypes of heroes as we find them expressed in fiction.  Endurance, more than courage, is the hallmark of demiheroes like Alice and Jonathan Harker.  It also underlies the “raison d’etre” for the majority of monsters, though one cannot generally call their acts “heroic.”  Dracula seeks to survive by finding new feeding-grounds. The Man-Thing is psychically sensitive to the emotion of fear, and attacks anyone who broadcasts that emotion in his presence, which may include innocents as readily as malefactors.

 

Heroes and villains are more focused on “grand gestures,” made in defiance of consequences.  Not all villains are larger-than-life like the Joker: Batman often fights criminals who are no more than *mesodynamic,* though on occasion a sufficient number of ordinary crooks present an extraordinary threat. 



 Even the mundane crooks as portrayed in these stories want more than simple survivial.  Typically they desire wealth, which may be seen as establishing a form of willed control over their environment.  This will to control often manifests in the crooks forming their own society counter to that of honest citizens.  Unlike monsters, who are most often seen as forces gone out of control, villains seek to exercise total control, be it of city-neighborhoods or the entire world.  The hero responds in turn with his own counter-efforts to control the pernicious counter-society of crime.  Those efforts—whether they stem from a vigilante like Batman or a constituted legal authority like Judge Dredd—also go beyond the criteria of simple survival, emphasizing the power of the law to curtail the will of the lawbreakers.       

 

 

 

 

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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