Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Rumination and a Query

So, while I was looking for something else entirely, I came across this image on someone's genealogy blog. I was of course intrigued by the Seattle connection. The attribution said the image came from the Tuesday, March 5, 1940 edition of The Seattle Daily Times (now just the Seattle Times) and I was hoping that it was a teaser for an appearance by a Superman actor at a department store or amusement park. I was so intrigued that I paid to have access to the full article: it turned out that the story was a promotion for the Superman comic strip, which was to begin running in the newspaper the following Monday.

The most fascinating characteristic of the article is that the writer had to explain who Superman was. Here are some excerpts from the piece, starting with the opening:

The writer continues with a short summary of the origin story, with "Jor-L" predicting Krypton's doom, the infant in the rocket, and the Kansas orphanage. He closes with this:

What struck me was how new it all was. Superhero was not yet a genre - this strip called "Superman" was still an 'exciting adventure strip.' There are no clich├ęs yet, no tropes, no stereotypes: a cape, a mask, and a secret identity had not yet become trite or been reduced to shorthand emblems; [fill-in-the-blank]-man jokes were not the commonplace they are now. The whole genre was still being created. If I created a new superhero comic strip and had it syndicated today (miracle though that would be) the strip would be described as such, in those words, and the character would probably compared to anther superhero. (Metropolis has Superman, Gotham has Batman - and Bigtown has Captain Fireworks!)

This familiarity has in-story effects as well having a real-world, social dimension. Not only were these types of stories new to the readers, but these types of heroes were new to the other characters in the stories. A tough cookie like Lois Lane could be shocked, confused, or mystified by a seemingly normal person with extra-normal abilities - especially one wearing a costume and purporting to be an altruistic do-gooder. But now, 75 years after Superman came to Seattle, we've all read about or heard about or seen superheroes, and it is hard to imagine a fictional world in which people haven't. In 1978, the classic "You've got me - who's got you?!" line from Superman - The Movie was clever enough for us to forget that the idea of being surprised by a superhero was already wearing a bit thin. By last year's Man of Steel, it really required a willing suspension of disbelief to go with the idea that no one in the 21st century had any familiarity with the concept of super-powered people - or alien invasions.

Because we have a similar problem in other genres. How could anyone not recognize a mothership now, or at least be familiar with the concept? If an alien invasion happened for real, our population (at least the industrialized, hollywooded world) would have all sorts of cultural narrative contextualizing their response - how can we accept movie people reacting any differently? Same for zombie movies: can anyone watch a zombie movie now and believe that the characters have never seen a zombie movie?

The downside of this can be a kind of hermetically-sealed narrative: in superhero comics, there are in-story comics about real superheroes, police departments have metahuman squads, alien civilizations have embassies, and government agencies register superheroes: every cultural facet is accounted for. Alternatively, the stories become cutely self-referential: a superhero who is real in the narrative is compared in dialog to another fictional character who is fictional in that reality; characters allude to Star Wars and E.T. whenever movie aliens invade; and zombie movie characters make in-joke references to other zombie movies. I guess I miss the idea that something fantastical could actually be new, to both me and the characters in the story. But other than setting a story in a historical period before the rise of these genre tropes, I'm not sure how to do that.

The saying goes that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. I guess you also never get a second chance to be the first superhero.


PS: On July 5th, when there hadn't been a post in this blog for a week, I got five or six times my usual hits. What the what?

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