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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...

Wednesday, October 2, 2013


The question for the day is:

Do all superheroes belong to the superhero idiom?

Since I'm the one who formally declared that there was such an idiom-- though I built, ironically, on comments by noted superhero-hater Gary Groth-- I could just say "no" and be done with it.  But justifications are my blessing and my curse.

I did not define "the superhero idiom" in my first blog-essay on the subject, NOTES TOWARD A SUPERHERO IDIOM.  I did state, however, that what I called the "normative superhero" lined up best with the Fryean mythos that Frye himself called "romance," though for my purpose I use the term "adventure."

Now, in determining the nature of literary works within the superhero idiom, the second mode, that of romance, is the most applicable for what one might call the "normative superhero." Superhero stories may include characters with powers like those of gods (Superman) or who are represented as being gods within their fictive worlds (Thor), but for all the many motifs of myth that appear in such pop-cultural stories, they do not share the *form* of myths and so don’t belong to that mode. It remains correct to speak of superhero tales as “literary myths” to suggest that they can have the content and/or tonality of myths cast within a literary format, but this is no more or less true of SUPERMAN than of HEART OF DARKNESS. However, SUPERMAN does not belong to the same mode as the Conrad work, but to the mode of the literary romance, like L’MORTE D’ARTHUR.

Frye, in fact, uses the term "adventure" as an "element" in his romance-category, though he does not detail how (if at all) the element of adventure might appear his other three mythoi, presumably in "non-essential" ways.  He does mention that often ironic works are parodies of romance-works, though.  It may be that Frye, who had clearly read Theodor Gaster's THESPIS, conceived "adventure" as an assemblage of all possible story-motifs that suggested an adventurous mood-- a mood that Gaster characterized so well as "invigorative."  At the time that I wrote NOTES, I still tended to regard narratives that included fight-scenes as the best representation of that invigorative mood, though I didn't state that outright.

“The essential element of plot in romance is adventure,” Frye tells us. For me, though this does not preclude the appearance of other elements of storytelling, it does imply that what Steve Gerber called the “obligatory fight-scene” was not just a crutch for lazy writers, but just such an essential element. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there weren’t a lot of lazy writers and artists who produced very tedious and/or meretricious fight-scenes. Indeed, some comics-creators seemed unable to do anything but that. But the fight-scenes were entirely appropriate to the romance-genre in which they worked, irrespective of how well they were done.

Today I would have no problem with calling a novel like THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER an "adventure."  The book does not have a culminating fight-scene, but it does deal with young Tom's life being imperilled by the killer Injun Joe, and certainly does sustain an invigorative mood in the novel's latter half, even though the first half is comic in tone, concerning Tom's bucolic experiences in his small-town life, some of which deal with nothing more than boyish impostures of life-and-death battle.
SAWYER would still be a subcombative adventure, however. for Tom only "wins" his struggle against Injun Joe by dumb luck, not "might."

From the vantage of my later Kantian studies, I believe that even back then I was seeking to put into Fryean terms the distinct emotional appeal of the superhero, rather than resorting to simple-minded reductions like "the superhero is a compensatory wish-dream" and so on.  I spoke of the "normative superhero" as being the one whose fight-scenes were valid within the context of the adventure-mythos, but thanks to Kant I now realize that the invigorative appeal of fight-scenes appears in all four mythoi, and that the mode takes on its own distinct character in each.  The "superhero idiom" I was seeking then is not identical with the "combative mode." However, the two interpenetrate in that even when one encounters subcombative superheroes, their nature must be seen as a reaction against the audience's expectations of the "combative mode" one normally finds in anything that looks like a superhero story.

In Part 2 I'll deal with specific examples of "subcombative superheroes."

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