THE SUPERHERO PANTHEON: PART ONE
My December 7th column on the notion of “Recoil” (and why some characters stick around and others don’t) sparked some interesting discussion, and one of the most elegant thinkers on the subject is poet, comics writer, and author of six books for visual artists, Mr. Steven Withrow. Withrow has published such books as Toon Art, Webcomics, and Character Design for Graphic Novels, and he maintains the “Crackles of Speech” blog.
He can say smart stuff about superhero comics all day, and, usually, so can I, so we spent some time kicking this notion of recoil back and forth, and I listened to what Withrow had to say about his own theories about why some superheroes last while others drift away into obscurity.
Let’s give him the first salvo. He has a lot to say.
Steven Withrow: You’re on to something important, Tim, in connecting the Greek idea of “recoil” with the challenge of creating successful characters. Before we discuss that directly, I have two related ideas that I’d like to explore with you: (1) the superhero pantheon and (2) the iconic-dramatic spectrum. These are not my ideas, per se, but I think they’re crucial to any discussion of character in superhero comics.
To function as a cohesive whole for the reader, a mythos or universe has a limited set or “pantheon” of model or ideal characters called “archetypes” who are introduced and orchestrated by generations of writers and artists across an evolving map of linked settings and narrative situations. The DC or Marvel Universes are, in effect, the sum of all interactions among members of a discrete pantheon.
Any character can be a “reflection” or “shadow” of an archetype, but when writers try to cross those new or minor players to the pantheon of major characters, they instantly bump up against the prevailing archetype and are most often found wanting. Gravity gets squashed by Spider-Man, to use one example, because they too closely fill the same emotional need and aesthetic desire for the reader (independent young heroes struggling with the responsibilities of power with optimism and humor), and so they can’t comfortably share the same narrative space (i.e., the Marvel Universe) over the long term.
The success of Robert Kirkman’s Invincible supports this idea. In terms of archetype, Invincible is half Superman, half Spider-Man. In Kirkman’s emerging superhero universe, Invincible is becoming – by virtue of his aesthetic and emotional appeal – a prevailing archetype in his own pantheon. However, if you were to transplant him to the DC or Marvel universe, he would, I suspect, soon flounder. Not because he couldn’t be made to fit the DC or Marvel narrative scheme (Kirkman himself or another gifted writer could probably accomplish this), but more so because the desire and need he fulfills in his own space are already well supplied by Marvel’s or DC’s existing major characters in their own spaces.
If your new character satisfies a unique aesthetic desire I didn’t know I wanted (e.g., “goth gods” in the DC Universe), and/or some untapped emotional necessity I didn’t know I had (e.g., vicariously unleashing my bestial rage without losing my humanity), then you’ve got a winner on your hands. There’s much more to the success of The Endless and Wolverine than those things, of course, but the reader’s need and desire still reign supreme.
Tim Callahan: That’s a great point, and it answers the implied question that comes along with a character like the Sentry. Even if he does stick around, because Bendis has been using him enough to raise the character’s profile and give him a shot for longevity, will he really ever have any lasting meaning as a character, or is he just going to be “that Superman analogue guy” no matter how long he lasts?
SW: Sentry has a shot, actually, because Marvel has no other standout “godlike hero” figure to overshadow him (besides Thor, but he seems to me to be a different archetype, the incarnation of an actual god). Place him in the DC Universe, however, and both Superman (science god) and Captain Marvel (magic god) quickly render Sentry superfluous. In the company of these two titans, Sentry seems more of a villain than a hero. A dark shadow, not a close reflection. Now, that might be an interesting experiment, after all.
TC: Do you think this concept of the Grand Corporate Narratives having a limited set of archetypal characters goes back to the mythological pantheon of the Greeks, say, or the Egyptians? Do you think it’s as simple as that? We’re just plugging characters into slots that we need filled, psychologically speaking?
SW: The concept of a pantheon has been around at least as long as humans have been making metaphors to explain and explore tangible and intangible forces within and around us. One such force is “will power” – the individual’s ability to effect change in the universe. The use and abuse of this power is, I think, the central theme of all superhero comics.
Now, as an aside, I don’t believe superheroes are our society’s gods or that they have any religious significance for the vast majority of people. But, for some of us, they seem like gods and epic heroes while we’re reading about them. We invest our deepest hopes and fears in these characters. So we ask a lot of them. Not just anyone will do.
As to your question about simplicity, no, I don’t think it’s as simple as slotting in character types to fill prescribed needs. If we could tell in advance what will work or what those unmet needs are, we’d all be millionaires.
What is interesting to me, however, and what every comics fan knows, is that the whole superhero genre stemmed from a single archetype. Superman’s appearance in 1938 set off a chain of comparison and contrast that resulted in a loose pantheon that cut across numerous comic books and comics companies. There was no unified “universe” as of yet, just the bubbling froth of the Golden Age, which I think of as a massive “land grab” where writers and artists tried out every formulation and gimmick they could imagine until they found one that connected with a large audience.
And the same process went on through the Silver Age, and it still goes on today. The notion of narrative recoil is central to this process, but it all started with Superman’s archetypal chain reaction.
Over the past 70 years, a few dozen characters out of thousands of doppelgangers have emerged as archetypes of their own because their aesthetics and emotional underpinnings managed to strike the right balance with or against Superman. Ultimately, they formed not only the pantheon of the DC Universe (one step removed from Supes) but also the Marvel pantheon (two steps removed) and so many others (even more steps removed, but still all distant relations of the Last Son of Krypton).
A pantheon is structured like a symphony orchestra in that the key roles are distributed purposefully to maximize possibilities for harmony (alliance) and disharmony (conflict).
Using the DC pantheon as an example, picture a series of concentric circles with Clark Kent/Superman as the dual archetype at the center. Radiating out one circle, we meet Clark’s closest allies (Ma and Pa Kent, Lois, Jimmy, Superboy, Supergirl, etc.); these are the direct reflections who exist only in connection with Superman and so cannot be true archetypes of their own. The next circle out contains Superman’s archenemies (Luthor, Zod, Doomsday, Bizarro, etc.); these are the shadows who exist only in contrast to Superman and so are not self-sufficient archetypes.
Go out one more circle, and we find the JLA/JSA/Legion/Titans, who are both reflection and shadow – sometimes allies, sometimes challengers. These characters have self-directed, autonomous identities that can support their own stories separate of Superman. This doesn’t make them all archetypes, but it does multiply the chances for unique alliances and conflicts without pulling too far away from Superman’s orbit and fracturing DC’s “super solar system” beyond recognition.
DC has expended enormous energy to promote its “Big Three” mainly because Batman’s “dark knight detective” and Wonder Woman’s “warrior woman peacemaker” personas form such a neat trinity around Superman, and three is a magic number. (It’s also fascinating to watch Geoff Johns make a case for a Big Four with Green Lantern or Flash.) I would argue, though, that without Superman, neither Wonder Woman nor Batman is a strong enough archetype to be the basis of an entire mythos or universe. Perhaps, for one reason, it is because they do not tap as deeply our innate yearning to fly.
TC: But doesn’t Batman represent something more primal? The “dark knight detective” aspect is something that comes out of Batman’s pulp roots perhaps, but isn’t he more like “the god of problem solving”? And he mostly ends up solving the problems by punching them in the face, no matter how much his intellect, planning, or Bat-computer might help him get to that point.
Superman, in many ways the opposite, doesn’t have any problems, except those which he manufactures for himself. He could correct any injustice almost instantly, and even the social problems writers saddled him with for years were mostly the result of his attempt to pretend at humanity. To pretend to have those very problems. Had this mythic character never adopted the guise of an awkward newspaper man, he wouldn’t have had to trick Lois Lane all those times. And he wouldn’t have had any of those dual-identity struggles. Batman punches problems in the face to become superhuman, while Superman creates problems for himself to become human.
Does that mean that it’s not just Superman that was necessary to birth the superhero genre, but the duality between Superman and Batman?
Wonder Woman doesn’t seem to matter as much, even if DC wants her to.
SW: I like the “god of problem solving” idea for Batman, and perhaps I was too dismissive of Batman in my focus on Superman. But I still think the Batman archetype is a reaction against the Superman archetype. Not simply because Superman came first, but because I believe the world view that underlies Superman is more fundamental to human nature than the world view underlying Batman. We are born with a yearning for Superman as our ideal and must learn (if we ever do) to accept Batman as our reality.
How about the “god of retribution” for Batman?
In that respect, then, Superman is the “god of salvation” – of deus ex machina or rescue from above – and Clark humanizes the alien god. Superman represents a universe with the possibility of a savior. It’s a variation on the myth of Prometheus or “light bringer” that shows up everywhere throughout history and drives most religions. It intrigues me (though it doesn’t surprise me) that the superhero genre has a savior at its heart – and one who is continually renewed, reincarnated, and resurrected.
Unlike Superman, Batman represents a universe where salvation is impossible; we humans can only persevere down in the muck against forces of darkness within and without. We must make our own light, in other words. (Godot is not coming, to use a theater reference.) I say “retribution” rather than “vengeance” because retribution implies the human need for justice in an unjust universe – and for hope in an otherwise hopeless place. Vengeance denies our capacity for justice, for hope. Batman will never acquiesce, will never forgive, but even though he has no faith in a savior from up above, he harbors hope in the rightness of his own decisions and actions here below. He never gives in to the Sisyphean absurdity of his situation (nicely symbolized in the person of the Joker). Writers have either dived deep into this archetypal ocean or kept to the shallows.
I could open a major can of worms here about Wonder Woman possibly representing the “androgyne” – a meeting or balancing or unifying point or synthesis between the two diametrically opposed visions (yin and yang, anima and animus, warrior and peacemaker, female and male), but we’d never find our way out.
TC: And what about Marvel’s characters? Are they merely the cousins of Superman and Batman, twice removed, as you implied? What gives the Marvel pantheon such firm roots – Spider-Man is a major worldwide icon, and he seems outside the Superman/Batman schema – if its just a reflection of a reflection?
SW: The Marvel Universe is exceptional, not because its creators introduced wholly new archetypes (or even hybrids of archetypes), but because of the style and flair with which Lee, Kirby, Ditko et al. humanized the gods. I’ll focus briefly on two examples: The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man.
The Fantastic Four, as numerous writers have pointed out, is a family of elementals (water, earth, air, and fire). I see them as Superman – the unified archetype – divided into four aspects in order to maximize the potential for, and expand the variety of, alliances and conflicts, harmonies and disharmonies. They constitute a miniature, portable pantheon of their own.
Spider-Man is indeed two steps removed from Superman, via Batman as the intermediary.
As smart and wise as he sometimes is characterized to be, Superman is ultimately a “brute” hero like Achilles and Hercules and Thor. He is so powerful, as you said, that he can only invent his own problems. At any moment he could, on a whim, snuff out all life on earth. He doesn’t really need to use his intellect; he just prefers to do so, part of the time, because it satisfies his sense of justice. So maybe he’s closer to Zeus or Jehovah in this regard. Again, comics writers have either pushed this angle or pushed away from it.
Spider-Man, like Batman and Br’er Rabbit and Odysseus and Anansi before him, is a “trickster” hero. He can certainly use brute force, as we all can, but he relies foremost, as we all too rarely do, on his intelligence and wit to get him out of scrapes and save the day. Importantly, he is also the child or adolescent caught in the motions of growing up, whereas Batman and Superman are already adults. A fully adult Peter Parker stresses the archetype, messes with the metaphor. J. Michael Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man pushes in that direction, but not completely; Peter is still a “young” adult. This, I believe, is why Spidey has long been a candidate for revamp, for recoil. (Thank you, Misters Bendis and Bagley, for doing such a great job of this.)
Relative to Superman’s, Batman’s and Spider-Man’s need to resort to brute force is part of an intelligent strategy – a desperation device – and their best stories don’t have them swooping down and punching out the bad guy without first exhausting more rational solutions. It’s all in how they’re written, really, which is why we keep reading new stories about them.
Is it because we can identify with Batman and Spider-Man more than Superman that we find them so appealing? I think so. I’ll add, though, that Superman remains a significant symbol of our greatest dream or wish, while Batman and Spider-Man (and The Fantastic Four, too) are useful metaphors for how we as a species have learned to cope when dreams and wishes won’t do.
Two major universes, two major pantheons, one genre, one prevailing archetype.
NEXT WEEK: To be continued. With an elaboration of the iconic-dramatic spectrum! (And that’s not a reference to “Blackest Night.”)
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