THE SUPERHERO PANTHEON: PART TWO
Last week, I talked with writer, thinker, teacher, and all-around smart guy Steven Withrow about the idea of the superhero pantheon and the archetypal heroes that have lasted while others have slipped away from the popular consciousness. This week, Steve and I are back with the second part of our conversation, exploring the notion of the “iconic-dramatic spectrum” and how it fits into the classical notion of “recoil.”
Shall we begin?
Tim Callahan: So just to clarify a point you made last week, superheroes are not “the mythology of today,” they are just recursions of the mythology of all days. They are shadows, reflections of the ur-hero, the Superman.
Steven Withrow: Superheroes are one of many modern mythologies; they’re just not an organized religion as the mythologies of ancient Greece, Rome, or Egypt had been once upon a time. Yes, I think even Superman is an incarnation of the prototypical or ur-hero.
TC: Moving on to your second point in your overall theory of why new characters have trouble sticking in the Grand Corporate Narrative(s), what’s this “iconic-dramatic spectrum”? Where does the theory come from, and how does it apply to superheroes?
SW: The iconic-dramatic spectrum is my own variation on a set of concepts that are widely discussed in literary criticism. Alexander Danner and I explore these concepts in our book “Character Design for Graphic Novels.”
I often divide the archetype into two essential parts: (1) the character as icon and (2) the character as actor. To enter the pantheon, a character must succeed in both aspects at once.
An “iconic” character is instantly identifiable and aesthetically powerful. The character’s visual surface or the name alone elicits a strong response. To one person at one moment, that response might be informational: “That guy with the cape is Superman, and he can fly.” Or the response might be more emotional: A flash of childhood memory or a burst of excitement.
To be iconic, or used as a corporate brand, the image must remain (relatively) static for the sake of both instant recognition and positive association. To apply this to the superhero pantheon, two characters shouldn’t, as a rule of thumb, have too similar a name, costume, or abilities, for if we can’t even identify them, how can we possibly identify with them?
Moreover, a character’s consistent visual representation should be functional and not just decorative, immediately communicating something significant about purpose, powers, and personality.
Iconic status is generally a good thing for a character as long as the “refining process” always at work on its image doesn’t rob a character of his or her initial appeal (think of Mickey Mouse). But it’s not enough to be an icon. For a character to become someone more than a cipher or a tool (think of Captain Planet), the character must not simply be, but act.
While the merely iconic character (e.g., Superman’s image on a peanut butter jar) is dramatically inert, the truly “dramatic” character exists within a specific story context and can make decisions and take actions. And we as readers or viewers must feel the effects of those decisions and actions during (and possibly after) our experience of reading or watching.
The dramatic character is dynamic, interactive, and capable of depth, complexity, and contradiction. He or she is messier and much harder to reduce to polar opposites (good/bad; strong/weak; like/dislike, etc.) compared to the streamlined, out-of-context, iconic package. When it’s done right, we are made, through the medium of story, to care about the dramatic character.
Without regard to quality, all characters rest somewhere on the spectrum between “iconic” and “dramatic.” I’d argue that the most successful stand right at the center. Both sets of attributes are necessary for a character to even apply for pantheon status. This is such a tall order for any character — one must not only function well as an image devoid of any narrative context but also perform a more or less unique role in an actual story — it’s no wonder few creators ever achieve it.
TC: Okay, that sounds good for individual characters, but the superhero genre is rife with super-teams. How does the balance between iconic and dramatic work when characters are part of a larger group? Is their iconic status bound up in their relation to the group as a whole? I’m thinking here about the classic Avengers, where characters like Captain America or Iron Man might have both iconic and dramatic status independently, but Hawkeye only really functions in relation to the group as a whole. Same thing with the Vision. So how does the theory apply to them?
Or to the Legion of Super-Heroes for that matter, who have basically no status — iconic or dramatic — outside of their team?
SW: Good point. As I noted with The Fantastic Four, the most memorable super-teams (including the Legion) compose miniature pantheons, and also iconic collectives. The dramatic weight is distributed equally or shifts from character to character depending on where the spotlight of story is focused from adventure to adventure.
Regarding the classic Avengers, I think Captain America (supersoldier and flag-bearer) and Iron Man (armored knight and man-in-the-machine) are both independent icons and archetypes alone or in a group. Characters like Vision or Hawkeye remain spear carriers as long as the story centers on the team as a whole or on the more prominent players.
To see how a secondary character’s status can be altered, if only briefly, let’s recall the case of Blue Beetle in DC’s Countdown to Infinite Crisis from 2005. My own fondest memories of Blue Beetle come from the late 1980s with Justice League International by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, and Kevin Maguire. The comical antics of Beetle, Booster Gold, and Guy Gardner were lots of fun but never really qualified these characters for iconic or dramatic status, nor did any of their previous stories (as far as I’m aware).
However, when Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka, and Judd Winick teamed up to write the Countdown one-shot in which Maxwell Lord kills Blue Beetle, Ted Kord becomes, in his last moments of life, a solidly dramatic character. (Something similar, and similarly striking, happens with Ralph Dibny, Elongated Man, in Identity Crisis.) Despite earning the dramatic spotlight for the final act in his otherwise-inconsequential character arc overall, Kord as Blue Beetle has not achieved lasting iconic distinction, as he always came off as a bland blue counterpart of Batman, more hokey than heroic. But for those 80 pages, we cared what happened to him; his life and death mattered.
TC: So can a character become iconic, or is it just an inherent trait, and then it’s up to the character to become dramatic to matter? Superman and Batman, instantly iconic. Spider-Man, maybe not so much. But the character became iconic not during the Ditko years, but during the Romita years. Why? And what other characters have become iconic, even if they weren’t born that way?
Do some characters lack the iconic “gene,” and have no chance at iconic status? Like, for example, Red Tornado or Martian Manhunter? Or Nova? None of those characters seem to have hit the culture at large, even if they have stuck around in comics for a long time. So is this notion of the iconic-dramatic spectrum relevant to characters who last in the comic book world, or is it mostly relevant for characters who break through into the world at large?
SW: Let me take a step back and say that, in trying to connect this spectrum with archetypes and the pantheon, I’ve been conflating (and possibly confusing) two common meanings of the word “icon”: (1) a sign or representation that stands for its object by virtue of a resemblance or analogy to it; and (2) one who is the object of great attention and devotion; an idol.
Captain America, for example, meets both definitions simultaneously. And his success at definition 1 contributes directly to his success at definition 2 (I don’t think it would work in reverse). Cap debuted in 1941 wearing a flag and carrying a shield and socking Hitler in the mouth. His name and visual identity were and are crucial to his idol status.
Over the decades he has benefited from the refining process inherent in serialized storytelling, satisfying each new generation’s expectations while his writers and artists sought the simplest, clearest, and most emotive representation of his “object” or symbolic intent (American hero). Visual simplicity and clarity of purpose are paramount. (Alex Ross and others have some great things to say about this in Character Design for Graphic Novels — plug plug.) These are two of the hallmarks of good cartooning, in fact.
Cartoons and comics are even, many have argued, an iconic language. In “Understanding Comics,” Scott McCloud calls one key aspect of this language “amplification through simplification.” If we accept that premise, then we already see a striving toward the icon in every comics character in existence.
Red Tornado (android elemental hero), Martian Manhunter (alien hero), and Nova (cosmic hero) meet the first definition of “icon” pretty well, but they fall short of the second definition, perhaps because their objective or symbolic intent is unclear to the mass of people who are not intimately familiar with science fiction and superhero fantasy conventions, in the sense both of genre norms and of geeky get-togethers. Or maybe these guys are just too silly-looking to inspire hero worship (though I could see the Richard Rider version of Nova making a good pitch for this under the right dramatic conditions).
Captain America, like Spider-Man, transcends his comic-book context at the same time he continues to play a consequential role in the Marvel Universe. Like Uncle Sam or Superman, Cap has become an accessible metaphor for nearly anyone commenting on the United States because his image and its import are so easy to grasp and to apply in the outside world (“There we go playing ‘Captain America’ again!”). He evokes a set of specific emotions, while other characters, as intriguing as they may be, do not.
Even if we were to colonize Mars in this century, I have a hard time believing that Martian Manhunter would suddenly become an American idol; his origin and purpose are just too fuzzy at present. He’s got the “icon gene”; its just not adequately expressed to help him survive or thrive in a hostile environment. Will he adapt, disappear, or stay just as he is?
Whichever way, we’ll always need secondary characters to give someone for the Big Guns to buddy with and fight against.
TC: Okay, how does this all dovetail with the notion of recoil as expressed in my column (the one that kicked off this whole massive discussion)? How does the pantheon stuff and the iconic-dramatic stuff mix with the idea that these comic book universes need to snap back into place? That a new character — even one with iconic potential — might have trouble sticking around because recoil demands that the stories spring back into their status quo?
SW: The more integrated or coordinated a story universe is, the longer it will last for the greatest number of people. And the tighter-knit the pantheon at the story’s center is, the more complex, tangential, and multilayered that universe can become without fragmenting into chaos or meaninglessness. If we can keep the web of basic character interactions in our minds while we read about specific individuals, we can allow the storytellers license to surprise us, to take us someplace new.
A story is a complex system, and change, entropy, and outright revolution are inevitable and even beneficial. Yet to maintain the system’s integrity — and by extension, to preserve our emotional connection to it — the agents of recoil must periodically reassert the fundamental dynamics that caused the system to exist and to appeal in the first place.
New characters who aspire to the pantheon complicate the mythic paradigm by potentially undermining the key archetypal roles and unknotting the ties that bind existing characters. This is not a negative in the short term; newcomers shake up the status quo and inject energy into staid stories. Over the long term, however, if the roles and ties created by new characters go on to supplant the more formative, older ones — without returning something of equal or greater value — then the system will soon cease to function.
By way of example, I’d like to turn the tables, Tim, and end our discussion by asking you a question.
How does your “recoil” theory apply to Grant Morrison’s introduction of Dick Grayson as Batman and Batman’s son, Damian, as Robin? These are new players in new roles, if not wholly new characters. From the first moment I heard about it, I was disappointed to think that this would be only a temporary experiment, that Bruce Wayne would soon retake the cowl. Part of me still wants the change to linger indefinitely.
Is Bruce’s return necessary to preserve the integrity of Batman’s character and the DC Universe as a whole?
TC: Bruce’s return is necessary (after all he is the “god of problem solving and/or retribution,” while Dick Grayson is not a god of either of those things) for the pantheon to continue, but his absence is what makes for the more interesting story. Greek drama was about the very things that sent the universe so out of whack that it required recoil. Same thing with superhero comics. Good comics can exist when the status quo is maintained, but the best comics are usually the ones that bend and stretch the system. The conflict that matters is the conflict between what’s expected and what’s unusual. So Dick as Batman and Damian as Robin is a great pull on the integrity of the system (as was Bucky-as-Captain-America), and the stories are more interesting because of it.
But it can’t last. The Grand Corporate Narrative has become too solid. The pantheon, as you say, is already formed. Dick and Damian might have their place in the long run, but not in the place of Batman and Robin. Mercury can pretend to be Pluto for only so long before he has to go back to being himself.
Recoil reigns supreme.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” (which explores “Zenith” in great detail) and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon