Discussion in 'Off-Topic' started by abradley, May 21, 2019.
I was going to dismiss this with, but that was myth then remembered I was talking about comic books.
I don't know much about superheroes, but I believe the Age of Superheroes began about a century ago when Superian arrived, and who knows how old he is?
I must be old, I had to google that. Damn.
So did I:
The transformers have only been around since 1984, The Shadow since 1930.
What defines a superhero as a genre is the costume, I think, moreso than powers or secret identities. Plenty of heroes lack superpowers or secret identities or both, but almost all of them have a costume, or something that can function as a costume. That's the central image, and in an extremely visual genre like superheroes, image will dictate how characters are read. If you present audiences with a character who has superhuman powers or a secret identity, but no costume, they will not immediately be reads as a superhero. But give a character with neither of those things a costume, and they will tend to be read as a superhero.
I think juxtaposition to the mundane is also important, the fact that the superhero exists in what is nominally the real world, or in a fictional setting that is similar to the real world. Aquaman is only a superhero story to the extent that the characters spend part of the film running around "the real world"; the Atlantis stuff is closer to John Carter or Flash Gordon than it is Spider-Man. This ties into costuming, because the same outfit can read as a costume, or just how people in this setting dress, depending on the background. Again, Aquaman doesn't appear to be wearing a costume, just armour, because everyone else looks equally ridiculous. "The costume" functions through its contrast with its surroundings.
The first character to really bring these elements together is Superman. The fact that Supes came packaged with secret powers and identity helped set the conventions of the genre, but they didn't define it. What's important about Superman is that he is wearing his pants on the outside, and that nobody else is, and it's the combination of those two elements which come to constitute "the superhero" more fundamentally than his powers or secret identity.
The Shadow has some claim to being the direct antecedent of the superhero, because although his outfit is basically mundane- he's wearing the standard workwear of the pulp detective- it is constitutive of his persona as "the Shadow", and therefore functions in a way which is very similar to a costume. The clothes are mundane, but become something more than mundane as long as the Shadow is wearing them. It's like how the Punisher is generally depicted as a guy in military gear with a skull painted on, but this becomes a costume because we understand that it is the Punisher wearing them. However, I think that's a retroactive reading, because he doesn't represent as clear a visual break with the existing pulp hero tradition. He's a stylisation of an existing archetype, rather than a new archetype. If the superhero genre had never been born, I don't think we'd be able to read the Shadow in this way. We'd understand that "the Shadow" is a persona, but I think we'd still read this as a narrative construct, we would less readily understand the person as something which exists in-universe, which the characters have constructed.
edit: oops, wrote "the spirit" instead of "the shadow" a couple of times. i always get those two mixed up.
Good observation about the costume
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