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Ask Chris #113: Just What IS A Super-Hero, Anyway?

Here at ComicsAlliance, we value our readership and are always open to what the masses of Internet readers have to say. That’s why every week, Senior Writer Chris Sims puts his comics culture knowledge to the test as he responds to your reader questions!

Q: Kinda simple, but how would you define the term “superhero?”@the3rdwall

A: You call that one a simple, but trust me, it’s one of those questions that only gets more complicated the more you think about it. After all, as narrow as it might look from the outside, the super-hero genre encompasses a lot of stuff, and trying to find some kind of unifying theme that runs through everything is pretty tough.

I’ve been turning this question over in my head for a while now, and I’m tempted to just go with the old Supreme Court definition of pornography: I’ll know it when I see it. Of course, that’s not exactly a scientific classification, so we can probably do a little better.Part of the problem is that it can be really difficult to separate the ideas that really matter from all the window dressing that they’re wrapped up in. A lot the things we imagine as archetypical when we hear the word “super-hero” — capes and tights, flying around and lifting cars and all that, — aren’t really defining elements. They’re really just visual signifiers, and more than that, they’re visual signifiers of one character, Superman, who’s standing in for the rest of the genre. It has to come down to the themes and motivations behind all that stuff.

But then it gets even more complicated when you consider the ways the genre’s been twisted and turned over the past 75 years. It’s impossible to argue that characters like Captain America or Spider-Man aren’t super-heroes, but what about the X-Men? They wear costumes and fight bad guys, but they’re less rooted in going out and fighting crime than they are in being a sort of paramilitary strike force designed to protect their race. Is Wolverine a super-hero? He’s on a team with Thor and Captain America, so he should be, but is there anything beyond a costume and a codename that unifies him as a character with, Superman? And what about the Punisher? He’s a guy who wears a costume with a big emblem on it and he definitely fights bad guys, but are those elements enough to lump him in with Thor and say “these guys belong to the same archetype” because they happen to live in the same universe? Snake-Eyes has incredible abilities and fought a sinister mastermind who wore a mask (a few of ‘em, actually), but does that make G.I. Joe a super-hero book, or is it just an amped-up military fantasy? How about Hellboy? He’s got powers, fights bad guys, all that stuff.

Like I said, it gets pretty complicated. And if you expand the definition past just the mags you can pick up down at your local comic shop every Wednesday, it gets even worse. Sailor Moon definitely seems like a super-hero, but what about Goku? And how about Dr. McNinja? Hell, Scott Pilgrim head-butted a guy with telekinesis so hard that he turned into spare change. Is that enough to get him dropped into the Super-Hero category?

It’s a tough nut to crack.

For me, it often does just come down to how their stories feel. When I reviewed Archie’s Mega Man comic a while back, for instance, I referred to it pretty definitively as a super-hero comic, because that’s what it felt like. All of those elements that you pick up on without even thinking about them were in place, from the costume to the codename to the morality to the fact that he was fighting to protect people against thematic super-villains. Those are all pretty recognizable as elements of the super-hero story.

But then, that also owes a lot to the medium. The dominance of superheroes as a genre have shaped the language of American comics in a way that it’s almost impossible to escape from, particularly if you’re reading an action or adventure story, and Ian Flynn’s work on Mega Man reflects that. If you break down the structure to its most basic elements, the stories he’s telling in that book just read a lot like, say, a ’70s Spider-Man comic. It hits the same kind of notes as it tells its story, and does so in a similarly dynamic way. They share a language, and seem to be built on the same underlying foundation.

Because of all that, I was pretty comfortable referring to Mega Man as a super-hero comic, and looking back, I still think that holds up. But as a contrast, look at a very similar character, who appears in a very similar style of comics.

So let’s talk about Atomic Robo. When I asked co-creator Brian Clevinger whether he’d classify Robo as a super-hero, he was pretty adamant that he wasn’t, and instead claimed that Robo was “straight up pulp.” But the thing about that is super-heroes as a genre are also descended pretty directly from the pulps. I’ve talked about this before, but Batman in particular was a pretty shameless riff on the Shadow for those first few years, until he finally made a transition into becoming his own character towards the end of 1940, and he’s not the only one. In the same way that there have been a ton of action movies over the past 25 years that have basically been “Die Hard in a _____,” a huge percentage of early super-heroes were just “Doc Savage but ____.” One guy even managed to rip off the poor dude’s Fotress of Solitude, and got away with it.

So as distinct as super-heroes as a genre eventually became, citing a pulp influence doesn’t really draw that much of a line in the sand, and Robo’s full of elements that look like they belong in a super-hero book. Clevinger tried to argue that “Atomic Robo” wasn’t a codename — his exact words were “it’s what’s on his tax forms” — but really, it’s got the same adjective-noun construction that everybody in the Legion of Super-Heroes got saddled with. Plus he’s super-strong, durable, has fantastic technology. Robo even fights a Nazi brain in a robot body, and if that ain’t a sign of super-heroism, then nothing is.

And yet, even with all that stacked against him, Clevinger’s right. Atomic Robo doesn’t feel like a super-hero comic. It feels like pulp adventure that’s usually more in line with Indiana Jones than Spider-Man — albeit Indiana Jones starring an indestructible super-robot. So clearly, authorial intent has something to do with it, though if you asked me how to present a story that had a bunch of super-hero elements that didn’t feel like a super-hero comic, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. That’s a problem for an installment of Ask Brian.

What I’m trying to get at here is that I don’t think there is a hard and fast definition of super-hero. But there are a few characteristics that seem to be pretty common, and that I think you can apply across the board.

In his very funny Super Villain Handbook — available now at finer bookstores everywhere — War Rocket Ajax’s Matt Wilson does a very nice job of defining what separates a super-villain from an everyday crook. The dividing line there was theatrics, and I think the same holds true for super-heroes. There has to be some kind of sense of grandeur to it.

I do think costumes and codenames are a definite aspect of it, although that doesn’t necessarily mean capes and tights. It means there needs to be a distinctive look for the character, whether it’s Batman’s cape and cowl or Captain America’s blue scale mail or those sweaters and black leather jackets that the X-Men wore under Morrison and Quitely, or even something like Hellboy and John Constantine’s signature trench coats. They need to be visually different than a normal person. The same goes with the names, even if they’re using the one that’s on the tax forms.

It’s also pretty crucial that they have abilities far beyond those of a normal person, even if they aren’t outright super-powers. Even characters like Batman and the Punisher, who “don’t have super-powers” are still defined by being way more determined and/or pissed off than any real person could ever sustain, even before you get to stuff like a lifetime of combat training and a family fortune.

And because they have those abilities, they need to be called on to do things that no one else could possibly do. The threats that they face should be on a level that’s somewhere beyond realistic, because the characters themselves have abilities that are beyond realistic. Even those early Superman stories where he’s punching out slumlords and abusive husbands — things a real person could probably do, if they didn’t mind a hitch in the Big House for assault — are really just allegories for stopping those problems as a whole. The enemy they face, whether it’s a concept or an organization or a person, needs to be something that none of us would have a chance against, even if they’re things that exist in our world.

Those pretty much take care of the “super” aspect, but the “hero” part is where it gets a little more abstract.

To me, it’s very important that super-heroes lives up to that title; as obvious as it sounds, they need to be heroic. There has to be an aspect of their character where they’re putting some kind of moral or ideal above themselves, with an element of sacrifice or altruism as the motivation. And that ideal can be as vague or specific as it needs to be. Superman wages a never-ending battle against evil and Batman fights crime. Spider-Man wants to use his powers to help people. Those are all pretty nebulous goals, and they’re also perpetual. The X-Men want to stand against oppression of mutant rights and stop other mutants from abusing their powers in a way that’ll get them all killed by giant purple robots. Elsa Bloodstone has a duty to fight monsters. Sailor Moon wants to punish the Negaverse in the name of the Moon, whatever the hell that means. These are much more narrow goals, but still valid.

And one of the reasons it gets pretty murky at this point is because it really comes down to what you consider to be a worthwhile ideal. The Punisher is probably the perfect example of this in comics, but even if you’re of the mind that hunting down criminals and killing them is okay — and the best Punisher stories, particularly Garth Ennis’s run, do a lot to make you want to see the bad guys taken down — I’d argue that you can never really put him in that category, because his motivations are purely selfish. There’s no altruism in a character like Frank Castle. There’s not really a desire to save people, the guy just wants revenge. Wolverine, who’s frequently lumped in with the Punisher as one of the more violent heroes in comics, actually stands in contrast. He’s very frequently motivated by a moral code.

But a lot of that relies on a subjective interpretation, both on the part of the creator and on the reader. And it’s also worth noting that context is as important as authorial intent — any protagonist created in a super-hero universe is pretty much going to default “super-hero” unless proven otherwise.

Again, those aren’t set in stone. I’m sure there are characters that you’d never think of as super-heroes — Harry Potter springs to mind pretty readily as one who fits those rules but seems off about it, even if he’s part of that same adventure story tradition. Still, those threads seem to tie in as many characters as I can think of, from Superman and Batman to Spider-Man and Sailor Moon and Dr. McNinja. More than likely, though, it’s like I said: You’ll know ‘em when you see ‘em.

That’s all we have for this week, but if you’ve got a question you’d like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris, or send an email to chris@comicsalliance.com with [Ask Chris] in the subject line!

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