On Superheroes and syllogisms

March 5th, 2008 • Kate

I have a special place in my heart for superheroes (which goes part of the way towards explaining a forthcoming book coming out by kt literary client Matthew Cody) and so I was eager to read Michael Chabon’s recent New Yorker article. Go read for yourself. I’m only on page one so far, but I had to stop and post this:

Superman invented and exhausted his genre in a single bound. All the tropes, all the clichés and conventions, all the possibilities, all the longings and wishes and neuroses that have driven and fed and burdened the superhero comic during the past seventy years were implied by and contained within that little red rocket ship hurtling toward Earth.

The article loses me a little as it gets into a discussion of costumes, but what I want to talk about here is this question of genre.
Writers so often ask about trends, and the question of what’s hot and how to write to that, but Chabon intuits another way around that question. If the syllogism is that Superman created the genre, but there are other superheroes, how else can we write that sentence, and what can we learn from it?
Does “Buffy created the genre, but there are other vampire slayers” work? How about “The Lord of the Rings created the genre, but there are other fantasy epics”? What else? After Buffy and LOTR, do other examples of their genre only come off as cliché? Discuss!

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4 Responses to “On Superheroes and syllogisms”

  1. emily Says:

    I actually disagree with the idea that any genre could ever be exhausted. And I take it almost as a challenge – as soon as someone states that all the space in a genre has been filled, it makes me want to knock down a few walls. Of course, the incessant and lesser imitations and trend-chasers may make us feel like a genre has been exhausted, but it is the fact that those lesser creations are without the soul of the original that makes us feel that way. In time, any genre can be redefined to admit new brilliance.
    For example, to the extent that Superman was the archetype for his genre, or defines his genre, he might define the scope of his genre. But that scope can always be in flux and reshaped – especially by the best of the stretches, reinventions and reincarnations of the archetype.
    I think Buffy is the very definition of expanding and testing the boundaries not only of a genre, but of how we even wrap our brains around the scope of a genre. What was Buffy's genre? Does she serve as the archetype, or even the epitome, of only the slayer? Of the hero? In some ways even the anti-hero? The genius of Joss Whedon's world in Buffy was that it was constantly testing and stretching its own boundaries, of redefining how we even wrapped our brain around the world his characters inhabited.
    So, while I understand defining genres makes sense, in that we like to organize and classify, I feel nothing but challenged to test the bounds of the very classifications we can define.
    Having said that, I do think one creation can make it difficult to share space in a genre if it is so revolutionary or well-done that it makes anything pale in comparison. I would not, at least not any time soon, attempt a slayer. But I might be inspired by some other part of Whedon’s world to stand along the boundaries of Buffy and emulate the light (and darkness) she gives off, and test the boundaries of whatever genre his world inhabits.
    Emily

  2. Literary Fangirl Says:

    I one agree hundred per cent with Emily. Buffy rocked the vampire genre, not because of the cute 16-year-old slayer who could kick arse (recall Jenny Calendar's "She's so little" statement), or because she fell for the very thing she was born to kill, but because of the complexities of character and the phenomenal worldbuilding Joss and his team did. I don't like SF/F usually, but if you say Sunnydale I'm there, and I'm feeling everything that goes with it.
    If the writer is good enough, I could see a new slayer lore and its world with build with minimal thought to Buffy. The Twilight series comes to mind — the Meyer vampire is entirely different than the Whedon vamp. And so are her werewolves.
    And look at Firefly. The Space Western was done, was done well, and everybody knows it, and just about everyone is a fan. I remember Captain Mal being likened to Han Solo when Serenity came out, but for me, having loved the show, it was entirely different. Yes, people can say it's derivative, but Joss's production of it was anything but cliche.
    I could talk Whedon worlds for days. Stopping now. 😉

  3. LeeAnn Says:

    As long as someone can think of a new way for a person to change, mutate, evolve, or otherwise possess a power other than what the general masses have, I think the genre of superhero will continue to flourish. Everyone wants to know that there's someone out there who's capable of defeating the evil that we can't handle. Whether it's a blonde teenager with killer fashion sense or a superstrong man in tights, the need exists; therefore the genre will continue.
    I have to admit that the overflow of similar characters has stretched the genre a bit thin, but as a writer, I have to admit that well done examples of the archetype, Buffy for example, are wonderful inspirations to show what a superhero can be. Joss accomplished a lot with that one show, because even though the main character possesses super powers, the supporting characters of Xander, Giles, and in the beginning, Willow were normal humans that banded together to accomplish great things. Yes, Buffy came and saved the day, but Xander literally saved her life when she met the Master the first time.
    Writers are dependent, to a certain degree, on the market when they present their work to be sold. However, and I've seen wonderful examples, a truly gifted writer will take a stale genre and breathe new life into it with a great work. For example, Anne McCaffrey took a new approach to scifi by putting humans on a living and intelligent planet. While there might not be new ideas, there is certainly room for new interpretations on old ideas.
    Can there be an epic fantasy to follow in LOTR's footsteps? Absolutely. Will another show step into Buffy's shoes? Undoubtedly. However, time will tell how well these replacements weather.
    LeeAnn

  4. susanadrian Says:

    Kate, have you read Vicki Pettersson's series? There's a perfect example of superheroes from a new angle.