I first encountered the term “obligatory fight-scene” when Steve Gerber used it in an issue of HOWARD THE DUCK. I doubt that Gerber originated the phrase, but at the time it seemed the perfect satire of the tendency of superhero comics, particularly those of Marvel, to make up for weak plotting by propelling characters into random, poorly-motivated donnybrooks.
Now, thirty years later, I think Gerber’s critique—so far as I understand it through his various public statements—was wrong. I don’t begrudge him making an incorrect statement for the sake of satire. Satire is meant to be incorrect, to exaggerate, to be unfair, in order to expose real-life, theoretically correctible absurdities.
Yet I think to some extent Gerber was guilty of judging one mode of fiction by the standards of another, and so, entertaining as the satire was, it wasn’t congruent with real life, which manifests both modes for different literary tastes.
I’ve stated before on my blog that I think true pluralism is evinced by understanding that “subtle” entertainments are not necessarily better than “gross” ones; that both are distinct modes of entertainment that can be done well, or done badly, each according to their own lights.
And, as it applies to the superhero genre, I would say that your basic, well-done-but-less-than-genius-level superhero story, obligatory fight-scenes and all, has just as much integrity as does a related work that purports to be more ambitious in terms of well-motivated drama and psychological insights.
Gerber, of course, was nowhere near the first to celebrate things like dramatic profundity over mere spectacle. The history of extant literary criticism begins with the Poetics, wherein Aristotle explicitly downgraded the role of “spectacle” as one of the components of poetic works, and considered “Tragedy” to be a more perfect form than the earlier genre of “Epic Poetry,” and that both were superior to “Comedy.”
Yet as I noted elsewhere, Aristotle did at least have a synoptic view of all poetic forms, which insured that even Comedy had its role to play. And a few centuries later, one of literary criticism’s most keenly pluralistic minds would expand and improve upon Aristotle’s formulations. Following the criteria laid down by Northrop Frye, I’ll try to show that are reasons pertaining to mode and intent that should demonstrate why one type of Good Fiction is as valid as another type of Good Fiction.
Aristotle’s Poetics starts by establishing the differences between different poetic works in terms of their medium, their modes, and their objects of imitation (the types of characters imitated by the fictions). “Medium” should be self-explanatory. “Mode” is a somewhat fluid term, applying to anything about the method by which the artist accomplishes his aims. As for objects of imitation, Aristotle asserts that the poet must choose what representation of humanity best suits his intent, to “represent men either as better than in real life, or as worse, or as they are.” It is upon this foundation that Frye constructs much of what is good about his ANATOMY OF CRITICISM.
As more than one later critic has observed, the Poetics has an unfinished feel, as many points are given only cursory development. Aristotle gives two examples of creators who represented their characters as being no better or worse than the average, but he doesn’t expound on the nature of those works, nor does he put any name to the genre or mode to which one might assign them. Instead, the philosopher focuses more upon the extremes of “better” and “worse,” as seen in his articulation of the still-familiar dialectical opposition of Tragedy and Comedy: “Comedy aims at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than in actual life.” Having established that important division, however, Aristotle then keeps his remarks on comedy (and its near relation, “satire”) to a minimum, and concentrates the greater bulk of his observations upon the higher forms of poetry, tragedy and its congener, epic poetry.
In the ANATOMY, Northrop Frye begins his “Theory of Modes” section by observing that the words Aristotle uses for “better” and “worse” have less to do with moral rectitude than with what Frye calls the characters’ “power of action” within their universe, and then revises Aristotle’s three-part schema of literary classifications into a schema of five modes. These are as follows:
(1) the mode of “myth,” in which the protagonist has a “power of action” greater in kind from that of a human being, and so is either a literal or figurative god.
(2) the mode of “romance,” in which the hero is superior to other men only in degree, in that “prodigies of courage and endurance, unnatural to us, are natural to him.” The main model for this mode is not the myth proper but the “legend” and the “folk-tale,” forms that retain some of the fantastic content of myth but are somewhat more grounded in consensual reality.
(3) the mode of “the high mimetic” takes in, according to Frye, those modes that Aristotle called “epic” and “tragedy,” for they are concerned with heroes who are still “superior in degree to other men,” but who exist in a less marvelous world where there are limits on his “prodigies of courage and endurance.” In such worlds, what the hero does “is subject to social criticism and the order of nature.”
(4) Next comes the mode of “the low mimetic,” which in essence is Frye’s substitution for that mode Aristotle does not name, where the hero is no more than average. Frye deviates from Aristotle here, for Frye considers that the typical hero of the pure comedy as being more often “average” rather than “worse than average” (a judgment with which I concur). Frye also includes in this mode “realistic fiction,” his initial example being Thackeray’s VANITY FAIR.
(5) Finally comes the mode of the “irony,” where the hero’s power of action is lower than average, trapped in “bondage, frustration or absurdity,” for which the hero of Kafka’s TRIAL is one of the foremost examples (page 42).
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.
“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.
By contrast, a work that purports to put aside the element of adventure for other elements is by Frye’s definition deviating from the mode of romance. The most famous example where the genre of superheroes was converted away from the pattern of the romance would probably be WATCHMEN. There are a number of physical conflicts in WATCHMEN, but though all of them are technically as well-done as the best “fight-scenes” in regular superhero comics, their purpose is usually anything but to evoke the spirit of pure adventure. Interestingly, for all that most of the Watchmen are physical prodigies, Moore reduces them to the level of the powerless characters in an irony, in part by having them overshadowed by the only truly super-powered hero, Doctor Manhattan. Taking into account Moore's tendency to give his super-characters existential crises that dilute any spirit of adventure, WATCHMEN is thus a superhero tale told in the ironic mode, where the heroes have lost all significant "power of action."
There's nothing wrong with translating the romance-oriented genre of superheroes into another mode. But all too often, what passes for comics-criticism these days is merely the celebration of one or more “sophisticated” modes over a mode or modes perceived as crude or embarrassing. This is not genuine discrimination, but superficial elitism of the type that gives the elitist comfort by flattering his pretensions to intellect.