This topic's popped up some in the Top 100 Runs discussion. So I thought I'd take a stab at a definition. It sure seems obvious until you get down to the nitty gritty of trying to actually figure out if a given comic is a superhero comic or not.
And while I don't think I'm up to definitively defining "superhero" I can provide a continuum and define comics as more superhero or less superhero. Which is at least a starting point, and hopefully you guys can work up a more concrete definition.
Let's narrow the topic down into a recognizable thesis statements:
What criteria , in the context of American comic books, makes a specific comic, run, or graphic novel fit into the superhero genre?
Well, it'll be easiest to work backwards. Let's take a crapload of superhero comics and see what they all have in common.
Some of 'em are easy to define:
But the problem is stuff like this:
Could Go Either Way!
So here's the plan: I'm going to try to come up with a list of traits that are common to superhero comics, and try to stake out the boundaries of a continuum between More and Less superhero-y. Then we'll gather a control group and test 'em.
Six Traits of Superhero fiction.
(More or less in order of importance.)
1) Superhero stories are designed for escapism through audience empowerment.
The audience reads about a character who has a great deal of control over their own destiny and, in turn, feels empowered through identifying with the character.
That... that sounds really strange. Anyone got a better explanation for how superhero stories work than that?
Note that this isn't superhero specific, mind. It's true of most genre fiction
Tangent Begins: In fact, for classification purposes, I'd argue the line between literary and genre fiction deals with the perceptions of pandering to (or playing to the fantasies of) the audience.
Granted, many people doing the dividing haven't read my handy definition, leading to a large number of divisions that feel fairly arbitrary. Phillip K. Dick, who writes fairly sad, humanistic stories set in the future, and he ends up in the science fiction section. Kurt Vonnegut does the same thing, and he's literature. Gabriel Garcia Marquez magical realism? Literature. Charles De Lint's magical realism? Fantasy.
But it's the perception of pandering, whether accurate and justified or not, that divides literary and genre fiction.
2) The protagonist of superhero fiction has superhuman abilities, or is extraordinarily skilled.
3) Superhero fiction is concerned with the divide between good and evil, or right and wrong.
Sidebar: There's an element of moral instruction to superhero fiction, much like ancient myths, and it tends to be conservative in it's outlook. Superheroes don't change the world, they protect the status quo from invasion.
4) The protagonist of superhero fiction takes a pro-active role in the stories....eventually.
Superheroes aren't reluctant to be superheroes: They're not Bilbo Baggins, Alice in Wonderland, or Arthur Dent. (Although many start out as victims of fate before deciding to take a pro-active role.) Superheroes regard their role as a duty, a calling, or a job. Which doesn't mean they're not sometimes roped into trouble, or even passive victims, but this is generally a result of their previous pro-activity.
Also, I think the superhero's reason for doing what they do has to be open ended. If your main character is trying to recover the mystic Wydget of Yendor so they can protect the village of East Buttocks where they will return and live out their lives as an unassuming seller of novelty dog byproducts, they're probably not a superhero. If they're trying to end crime in Gotham City, or make peace in the man's world, or protect the earth - Then, yeah. Superhero.
5) Superhero fiction is set in the present, and it's a present that's more or less like our own.
No robots or flying robot cars.
6) Superhero protagonists wear costumes.
Be those costumes spandex, or black leather, or simply green speedos, superheroes are immediately identifiable by their clothing. (Or, in the case of the Thing or the Martian Manhunter, by their inhuman appearance.)
Sidebar: This is probably more for marketing rather than storytelling reasons And the fact that costumes makes the characters easy to tell apart, even when drawn by not-particularly skilled artists working extremely quickly, probably has something to do with the costuming of superheroes as well.
6A) Superheroes have a secret identity. This was it's own category, but I don't think you can have this without costumes. And, yeah, Marvel seems to be actively phasing these out in the name of realism. Which feels t'me like trying to empty the ocean with a bucket - Realism pretty much goes out the window as soon as you have Shiny, Naked Space Jesus flying around on a magic surfboard - But whatevs.
And a converse to the above:
Superhero stories can be defined by the ABSENCE of one through six. Evanier and Aragones FANBOY or (I think, from reading reviews) Millar and Romita Junior's KICK-ASS are about the absence of special-powers. The fact that the main character is not extraordinarily skilled is a major theme of the stories, unlike, say, DEATH OF A SALESMAN or WINNIE THE POOH.
Ok. Having defined some traits, let's gather our control group and see if the above criteria apply.
Here's five superhero-ish comics I have handy, one per decade going back to the sixties, and chosen more or less at random. All are DC and Marvel, because they make up the bulk of my superhero comics collection. And I figure the people who control the Bat and the Spider are the definitive superhero people, anyway.
ALL STAR SUPERMAN fulfills all the categories as does ICON: They're definitely superhero books. The FANTASTIC FOUR and DOOM PATROL fulfill the first six criteria, but not 6A) Secret Identies. They're still superheroes, but not as much so as the first two. PSI-FORCE, which lacks a pro-active stance, or costumes, only fulfills four of the big six criteria.
It's certainly LESS of a superhero book than the other four. Still, four outta six is pretty good. I'd say that anything with 3 out of six or less is definitively not superhero... But since this one only misses two of the less important categories, it still counts.
For the record, I'd say CONCRETE definitely isn't. It fulfills conditions 2 and 6, but doesn't fall under the other categories. Not superhero!
Things I am unsure of:
1) Any story set within a superhero-centric milieu (Say, the DC or Marvel Universe) is a superhero story?
Is the Hulk (clearly, at it's core, a horror/monster story that ) a work of superhero fiction? Is Spider-man Love Mary Jane? If Groot, a space-monster who's first appearance pre-dates Fantastic Four number one, is ret-conned into the Marvel Universe as of Annihilation Conquest, does that make Groot a superhero book?
2) If a superhero story fulfills exhibits all the traits BUT number one, is it still a superhero book? If, say, Spider-man (clearly a superhero) spends a four issue mini-series discussing lawn growing tips with his neighbors, is that particular series a super-hero comic?
OK, over to you guys: What defines the "superhero" in superhero comics for you?