Saturday, November 17, 2012

COMIC HERO VS. COMIC DEMIHERO

The hero of the tale may be one of two types: (1) if a young girl is kidnapped,,,, and if Ivan goes off in search of her, then the hero of the tale is Ivan and not the kidnapped girl.  Heroes of this type may be termed seekers. (2) If a young girl or boy is seized or driven out, and the thread of the narrative is linked to his or her fate and not to those who remain behind, then the hero of the tale is the seized or banished boy or girl. There are no seekers in such tales.  Heroes of this variety may be called victimized heroes.-- Vladimir Propp, MORPHOLOGY OF THE FOLKTALE, p. 36.
"Fellow members! I vote to install Johnny [Thunder] as a member of the Justice Society!  Anybody with his luck ought to be a member!"-- Hawkman, ALL-STAR COMICS #6.

In the MORPHOLOGY Propp doesn't discuss the nature of heroes much beyond the above quote.  The Russian folklorist's sole purpose in that book was to emphasize the way different "dramatis personae" acted in terms of storytelling devices, what Propp calls "functions."  Nevertheless, though Propp doesn't apply any aspect of his function-theory to any narrative outside folklore, it has strong applicability to my own theory of literary personae.

Now, in this essay I offered one distinction between the "hero" and the "demihero" based loosely on the observations of Christopher Reeve.  To re-quote the actor:

“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.”
I still believe that Reeve's opposed categories of "courage" and "endurance" have strong applicability, though I never meant to imply that these categories summarized all distinctions between hero and demihero.  It is interesting, however, that Propp's summation of his two protagonist-types also turns on a distinction between a protagonist who makes a grand gesture based in "courage"-- that of the seeker following a villain who's seized someone else-- and the survival-instincts of a "victimized hero," whose principal virtue is one of "endurance."

"Courage" and "endurance" may not adequately describe the values of Propp's protagonist-functions,though, because Propp is attempting to produce a scientific, value-free description of folklore practices.  Similarly, my Schopenhauerean distinction between "intellectual will" and "instinctive will" would probably be too value-laden for Propp.  What Propp's paradigm describes is essentially a difference between "heroism in activity" versus "heroism in passivity."  "Heroism" in this context must be divorced from the nature of any particular hero: in folklore studies it connotes simply the actions (or non-actions) of the characters with whom the audience is supposed to sympathize.  The same parallel obtains with characters who dominantly represent the forces of chaos, with villains representing a very active form of evil, while monsters tend toward greater passivity (dragons who are minding their own business guarding their hoards when knights come calling, and so on.)

I've produced a couple of essays to explicate the differences between "hero" and "demihero."  The first was DEMIHERO DELIBERATIONS,which compares a comedy demihero (Dr. Craven) with a dramatic hero (Harry Potter); the second, MORE DEMIHERO DELIBERATIONS, pursued the Craven/Potter comparison and made a brief comparison between comic demihero Craven and comic hero Ranma Saotome.

However, Craven, as a character in a stand-alone narrative, doesn't make a symmetrical comparison with characters designed for serial formats.  So for this essay, I'll focus on two serial characters from the same medium-- comic books-- and who are dominantly viewed as "comic bumblers" who, like most of their kind, tend to get by on luck (an important element in the mythos of comedy, as explicated here).


First up is Johnny Thunder, of whom I've written before:

JOHNNY THUNDER, on the other hand, frequently shows the titular hero falling afoul of hoods and gunmen, whom he usually vanquishes with the help of his magical powers. However, in his first adventure he’s unaware of the power, which is conferred on him for an hour’s time when he pronounces the holy word “Cei-U” (which Johnny only does when he accidentally uses the words “say” and “you” consecutively). The same “origin story” establishes that Johnny, though moderately skilled as a fighter, is “just an ordinary guy trying to lead an ordinary life,” which aligns him less with heroic magicians like Mandrake than with the comic protagonists of Thorne Smith.


I would grant that within the comic mythos, Johnny Thunder is, like the Inferior Five analyzed earlier, a hero who gets into a fair number of fights. But these agonic elements are subdominant to the comic elements, such as the scene where Johnny, unaware of his power, tells a man to “go jump at a duck,” which of course the fellow does. In later stories, Johnny’s power becomes embodied in a separate character, a genie called “Thunderbolt,” but the presence of this super-being never takes the focus away from Johnny’s status as a good-hearted bumbler. Even as a member of the heroic Justice Society, Johnny plays the funny sidekick to the “serious” superheroes. Thus even in this adventure-oriented feature Johnny Thunder remained a visitor from a strangely comical domain.


The only correction I'd make to this is that although Thunder does indeed have a different "mythos-stature" than a character like Mandrake, given that one belongs to the comedy and the other to adventure, in terms of "persona-stature" the two of them are closer to one another than either is to a demihero character like Thorne Smith's Topper or his comic-monster ghost-buddies.

Although Thunder is a dimwit who often survives more by luck than by skill, he does show a tendency toward the intellectual will of heroism-- which is not to say that he himself is ever intellectual-- in that he does, as shown in ALL-STAR COMICS #6, audition for and successfully join the Justice Society.  In JUSTICE SOCIETY he is, as I said earlier, a comic hero hanging out with straight adventure-heroes; in his own 1940s feature he tended to simply blunder into trouble. Yet even in the solo series he is an "active" hero in the sense that he makes it his personal business to play crimefighter.




Jimmy Olsen, in contrast, seems a more passive character, for all that he like Thunder frequently blunders into conflict with criminals, invading aliens, etc.  Olsen debuts as a minor supporting character for the SUPERMAN radio show in 1940-- though some fans have tagged an unnamed office boy from a 1938 comics-story as "Jimmy" simply because the character wore a bow-tie.  Olsen made scattered appearances in the comics, and disappeared for roughly a decade until he was revived, again as a support-character, in the 1952-58 ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN teleseries.  Two years following the character's return, Olsen became the central character of his own comic-book series.

Strangley, though the Olsen of the teleseries was played as comic relief, the first three issues of the comic book attempted to portray him as a resourceful "Hardy Boys" type of hero, able to fight thugs with his own skills and one or two trick-weapons.  By the fourth issue of SUPERMAN'S PAL JIMMY OLSEN, Olsen started having wackier adventures, and this became the norm for the series until it was cancelled.  During those years Olsen sometimes became a "superhero manque," occasionally transforming himself into "Elastic Lad" to fight crime in Metropolis or into "Flamebird" to battle evil in the bottle city of Kandor.  But the only sustained period in which Olsen was treated as a formidable adventure-hero was during Jack Kirby's tenure on the title from 1970 to 1972.



Though Olsen blunders into trouble just as Thunder does, the similarity ends there.  While popular media had seen any number of heroic crime-busting reporters, Olsen doesn't crusade against crime in his adventures as a Daily Planet reporter.  Reporting the news is the character's first love, not fighting crime.  For all of his flirtations with heroism, Olsen is first and foremost an "ordinary guy," which allowed him to show an "endurance" sort of heroism in some stories, and to be a pure "victim" in others.  Johnny Thunder is seen with a mundane job in his first appearance, but over time he becomes a rootless do-gooder with no visible means of support, as if getting into trouble and fighting crooks has become his job in a diegetic, as well as an extra-diegetic, manner.

At present I don't plan to explore these distinctions within the mythoi of adventure and irony. I will note in closing that my persona-theory as expressed here probably necessitates a modification of this statement from this essay:

Because of the lack of spectacular violence, I see VOYAGE as a subcombative form of adventure. The heroes are perhaps a little better at combat than the average man-on-the-street, but not by much. This type of hero thus fits my definition of the mesodynamic hero from this essay as possessed of a dynamicity ranging from "good to fair," a grouping that thus far also includes the original version of Aladdin, Doctor Who and Brenda Starr, three other subcombative types analyzed here.


I haven't changed my dynamicity-ratings for any of the characters discussed here, but would probably distinguish the Seaview crew and Doctor Who as belonging to the persona-category of the hero, while Brenda Starr and the folkloric version of Aladdin belong to the persona-category of the demihero.

1 comment:

Richard Bensam said...

One quibble: starting with the issue after Kirby's departure and lasting through the end of the series a couple of years later, there was an effort to reinvent Jimmy Olsen as a crime-fighting adult reporter. This started with a short run of issues drawn by Mike Sekowsky, one of which also wrapped up a couple of dangling plot threads from the Kirby issues. This was followed by the "Mr. Action" era, which tried to marry the two-fisted investigative reporter angle with more traditional SF elements and the return of Lucy Lane. Both tries came across as an attempt to bring a contemporary TV action hero style to comics.

After that, the Superman Family book picked up the issue numbering from Jimmy Olsen and kept going for quite a few years, but I stopped reading so I don't know what happened to Jimmy after that...