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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...

Saturday, July 19, 2014


One of the most famous tropes of the superhero idiom is that of "strength concealed by weakness," or, alternately, "strength evolving from weakness."

Obviously no credible study of the superhero can pass by the trope of the hero's "secret identity." There are of course a fair number of heroes who have no such double identities, or whose mundane origins are widely known to the public. Yet the image of the heroic figure who emerges from some unlikely source-- a meek, bespectacled reporter, a child, or an indolent playboy-- has become a major metaphor for the superhero genre. Johnston McCulley's "Zorro" was not the first character to conceal a dynamic nature beneath an unlikely facade. Still, Zorro may have been the character who most affected this trope of the superhero idiom, with obvious impact on such characters as the Shadow, the Spider, Batman, and Superman.

The Fawcett Captain Marvel is a slightly different wrinkle on the same trope. The hero's alter ego of Billy Batson is literally weak-- I'm not sure that the Fawcett version of Billy is ever seen "resorting to physical violence" as himself, even when faced with an opponent in his own weight-class. The weak alter ego doesn't just shuck off his clothes and reveal the powerful persona beneath; he must literally transform himself into a being of great power physically distinct from said alter ego.

Still, as different as these variations on a theme may be, I view both of them as examples of interiorization. That is, the hero's true, powerful self is concealed within him, and must be summoned from within.

A distinct trope, though, is that of the hero who calls up some other being to do his fighting for him.  Thus, while one can see Superman as an interior power that bursts forth from Clark Kent, and Captain Marvel as one that subsumes Billy Batson, the relationship in this trope-- what I will call the "djinn-and-summoner" trope-- is one of exteriorization.  That is, the character doing the summoning usually remains un-transformed, and the "djinn" that he calls up is a character in his or her own right.

The folktale "Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp" is patently the most famous story about a person calling forth a djinn/genie. The story doesn't qualify for inclusion in the combative mode of the superhero idiom, as I noted in my essay MIGHT VS. DOMINANCE:

The original story of ALADDIN AND HIS WONDERFUL LAMP would seem to be a subcombative form of adventure, in that there is no actual combat between Aladdin and his opponent the "Chinese Magician," nor does Aladdin fight any proxy servant of the Magician.  The conflict consists of either hero or villain swiping the lamp away from the other at this or that time, but never in a direct confrontation.  

There have been any number of takes on the Aladdin-tale in which the summoner-hero is much more dynamic than the djinn he summons, as with the 1939 POPEYE theatrical cartoon "Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp." Though Popeye/Aladdin does call up a genie, his big duel with an evil magician at the cartoon's climax is wholly dependent on his ability to empower himself with spinach, another wrinkle on the interiorization trope; ingesting some substance to unleash one's "inner strength."

Another more active Aladdin is the one from the Disney cartoon, who, instead of being a lazy layabout as in the Arabic tale, is a swashbuckling swordsman. Thus, though this Aladdin does summon a djinn to fight various antagonists, he isn't entirely dependent on his magical helper.

Yet some modern superheroic works display summoners who are almost entirely dependent upon their djinns. In this essay I cited the example of GIGANTOR. As with Billy Batson, I don't remember any instances in which the boy-summoner was seen fighting on his own behalf. But even if there were isolated incidents in which Jimmy Sparks duked it out a few times with villains, the dominant trope of the teleseries was the summoning of its robotic djinn, who would proceed to give battle to some other kaiju-sized menace.

In Part 2 I'll discuss the ways in which these types of djinn/summoner relationships sort out in relation to dynamicity and the combative mode.

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