Monday, March 20, 2006

What makes a superhero?

Alright, so if we're going to talk superheroes here, we should probably start with a definition of what a superhero is.

Well, let's start with the dictionary definition, shall we? The American Heritage Dictionary defines a superhero as "A figure, especially in a comic strip or cartoon, endowed with superhuman powers and usually portrayed as fighting evil or crime."

That looks like a decent definition to start with, doesn't it? But let's break it down some.

I think we can accept the first part of the definition. "A figure." While there are a few exceptional superheroes who are composed of more than one figure, such as Marvel's Multiple Man, who makes copies of himself, or DC's Firestorm, where two people combine to become a single hero, generally a superhero is a singular individual.

(And for the sake of this argument, we'll make superhero gender-neutral, shall we?)

Moving on to the next part of the definition, we have "especially in a comic strip or cartoon." Hmm, this one seems to be a bit more problematic. First, there is a difference between a comic strip and a comic book, and the comic book is of course the greatest depository of superheroes. But we'll leave that as being merely a semantic issue. The word "especially" does allow for exceptions, but it seems to me that this part of the definition is unneeded. Dark Angel and the Greatest American Hero have their origins in live-action television. Black Scorpion and Darkman were both created for film, and all of these characters would be qualified as superheroes. Furthermore, there are comics and cartoons that detail figures with superhuman powers that fight evil or crime who are not superheroes. Much of DC's Vertigo imprint deals with non-superheroes who battle evil for whatever reason, but it's hard to argue that Lucifer is a superhero. So I think we can leave this part of the definition on the cutting room floor.

Let's keep moving on: "endowed with superhuman powers". Here we hit a major stumbling block for any true superhero fan. The list of superheroes who have no superhuman powers is lengthy. Batman, Robin, Green Arrow, the Black Knight, Hawkeye, and Astro City's Crackerjack and Altar Boy, each have no superhuman powers. They do all make use of extraordinary equipment to varying degrees (most modern takes on Green Arrow have removed the gadget arrows from Oliver Queen), but for many of the characters, the equipment is mostly mundane technology available to anyone on the street. Or at least any citizen of those comic book universes.

Taking this example further, we have ordinary humans who use truly extraordinary devices to do superhuman feats. If you take Tony Stark out of his armor, or take away Hal Jordan's ring, you are left with an individual who is certainly not endowed with superhuman powers, but they don't suddenly stop being superheroes as a result.

Still, it is hard to say that superheroes aren't defined by having abilities beyond those of ordinary humans. It might be extreme levels of training, or high-tech device, or the study of magic, but they certainly have the ability to do things no normal human is able to. So, let's change this part of the definition from "endowed with superhuman powers" to "having abilities, either inborn or through external influence, that are greater than those of ordinary humans."

The final part of the definition, I think, we can leave alone. Superheroes are defined as such because they fight evil or crime. (Arguably, superheroes are more interested in evil than crime. You don't generally find Spider-Man or Batman going after jaywalkers, tax evaders or those who speed on the freeway.)

But there seems to be something lacking from this definition. And it's not something easy to pin down. There are characters who fit the above definition that many superhero purists would say are not superheroes. Personally, I find it hard to accept the Punisher as a superhero, and DC's Elite were a wonderful poke at the Authority and their right to call themselves superheroes.

So, is it an issue of superheroes wearing costumes? Certainly not. Buffy Summers and Luke Cage are certainly examples of superheroes without a costume, while the Punisher wears one.

Perhaps it's keeping a secret identity. Well, again, there are superheroes whose identities are known to the public, such as the Fantastic Four, and there are anti-heroes whose identites remain a secret.

What about an unwillingness to kill? For a long time this marked the dividing line for me, but reflection has caused me to waver on this. Batman is resolute about never killing, at least in the comics, but Superman has killed. Captain America has killed. And Wolverine has certainly killed. What separates these acts from those of the Punisher or the Elite?

For me, the issue becomes about the moral code to which they hold themselves. There may be cases where an "unheroic" act may be the only option, and a superhero may find themselves forced to make that choice. But it should never be the prefered option for a superhero. Being a superhero means holding yourself to a higher standard. It means not taking the easy choice. It means that when you are fighting evil, you strive not to become evil yourself.

Those characters who lose that code may be fascinating characters. They may even be heroic figures, but they fall short of being "superheroes" in my book.


Feel free to disagree with me. Heck, I'd love to hear your opinions on the matter. And while this blog is going to be focused on the superhero, we will talk about their relatives and offshoots as well, as seen by our recent discussion of V for Vendetta. But I think it important that when I talk about the superhero, that you know what I'm talking about.

10 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the OED also has a good way to approach this question. It says of the prefix super: "In recent (often nonce) formations after SUPERMAN, used to designate a person, animal, or thing which markedly surpasses all others, or the generality, of its class." In order to truly be a superhero, there needs to be much more to them than "ordinary" heroes. As such, I would stick with an unwillingness to kill (this would be oly one example). Wolverine, et al. are certainly heroes, but there inability to rise above a certain set of (very Earthly) morals leads me to doubt their ability to be called superheroes. The willingness to protect all life regardless of the risk (and extra effort required) is one of the things that truly makes a hero "super."

5:41 PM  
Blogger Aaron said...

I absolutely agree that the code of ethics that a superhero is held to must be significantly greater than that of an ordinary hero. I'm just not sure how to define that code.

For the longest time, the "will not kill" thing was my defining line. And a willingness to kill is what made Time Burton's Batman not work for me. But at the same time, Superman has killed on at least two occasions in modern continuity. Superman holds himself to an incredibly high moral standard, and he goes to extreme lengths to avoid killing anyone. Superman holds all life to be sacred, but he has killed.

It's hard for me to accept the idea that Superman falls short of the ideal of what makes a superhero. Of course, when you're looking at someone with his power, killing is frighteningly easy, and with all the evil he has fought, the fact that he has only killed twice is somewhat remarkable.

I am willing to allow that a superhero can make the decision to kill. But that decision can't come easily, and it shouldn't ever be executed if there are other options available.

7:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What really interests me is how superheroes often have to sacrifice their own interests/reputation in order to do the right thing. On the one hand, being a superhero could be the ultimate ego trip - special powers, bravery and strength, moral authority... but those whose everyday persona is separate from their masked 'super-identity' are often faced with having to look stupid or weak to those who 'don't know' their real super identity. In a way, this is where they have to demonstrate a kind of spiritual superstrength, to not allow their ego (when they are being misjudged) to get in the way of their conscience. Ironically, this is a very human struggle and I think this is one of the most important 'lessons' these stories teach.

8:28 PM  
Blogger Tony said...

Ok. I got into this with a friend, and I'd like to open it up for further discussion.

Most would not consider either James Bond or Indiana Jones to be superheroes.

Discuss.

4:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Superman is one of the greatest superheroes of all time he set the standards for almost all superheroes. If he has to kill it is for a good reason and I canceled out do to he evil of the one that was killed and the evil that the hero is doing to stop the villain. It is better to have to kill one person than that person killing many. It is a heroes job to protect the lesser and the helpless. If they where not there then what would happen to the helpless. They would be killed. So there for it is a heroes job to do anything in there power to protect the people around them and the world around them.

12:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wouldn't say it was their job, but their choice. They choose to protect those around them. That's what makes them super.

9:51 PM  
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4:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm interest to see what you think about the idea of superheros in today's pop culture? to me there appears to be a come back for superheros and comic books alike?

4:40 AM  
Anonymous Neon Menace said...

Personally, I believe very much in what you said, with one exception. What you seem to describe is more of a "hero" than a superhero. A hero is the morals and standards you spoke of, whereas the "super" part adds on the idea that they have special abilities and talents, whether they be natural, or just a skill with a type of weapon or fighting style.

5:53 PM  
Anonymous Neon Menace said...

Oh, and by the way Tony, Indiana Jones would not be considered a hero so much because he is more of a treasure hunter than a hero. James Bond could be, due to his skills, but it would have to be based upon his goals.

6:19 PM  

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