Monday, February 25, 2013

The Pillars of Pulp

In the alternate universe where I am spending my time making Cool Stuff, I am, right now, assembling my notes for a book-length analysis of the thematic elements and roots of superhero fiction. That alternate version of myself has decided to focus on two primary elements:

1. People with catchy names and flashy costumes, beating each other up.

This would seem to be the most shallow element of superherodom, until you look around to find other forms of entertainment that contain this same concept. "Entertainment" wrestling (including lucha libre) is based on this concept, as are most martial arts competition videogames (such as Street Fighter, Tekken, Darkstalkers, etc.). What makes the combination of costumes and combat so appealing? And why does it seem to be important for mainstream superhero combat to be non-lethal? Is this a product of the Comics Code Authority, combined with a desire to keep bringing villains back over and over again?

2. People with extraordinary abilities, taking on an alternate persona for the purposes of fighting crime.

This particular idea has been around since at least the Scarlet Pimpernel, and has been used by Zorro, the Lone Ranger, the Shadow, Batman, and an endless series of other mainstream superheroes. It ties in with the "catchy names and flashy costumes" element, but also seems to carry its own weight. A variety of comics and movies have tried to explore deeper psychological and societal reasons why the hero must wear a mask, but aside from the supposed justification for using a secrety identity, why has this particular theme survived so long, and why is it so widely copied?

The book would try to locate other works of art and fiction, both historical and contemporary, that contain these elements, and would try to determine why the superhero fiction genre has remained strong since its first presentations.

My book would also step back from these two themes to consider whether or not superhero fiction is "lazy fiction", since so many of the common elements are well-known and widely copied? I would argue that the genre is certainly no more formulaic than the romance genre.

My Pulitzer Prize acceptance speech, awarded for the completion of this work, would be brief and modest.