Truth. Justice. Minesweeper.

Monday, July 25, 2005

I just finished reading the paper by Ingrid's professor, the one on literary origins of superheroes. Ingrid brought it by the other day. God, it's death. Academic writing. Never fails to make my eyes glaze over.

There is some actual information in the article, though, and I was able to keep myself out of the coma long enough to extract some of it.

Basically the idea is this. Superheroes showed up in the mid-'80s. There's no disputing that. We don't know why people suddenly started getting super-powers, but we know they did, and we know when. So that's fine. But the people who got the super-powers immediately started behaving like comic-book-type heroes and villains. Must have been because of something they read or saw in a movie or on TV. Because why else would you put on a mask and call yourself Radish man or whatever?

So, Ingrid's prof is saying, therefore we can study the comics and books and TV and movies to try and figure out where all this is coming from. And he does a lot of that. And it's all semiotics this and postmodern that and who gives a crap. But he does make a couple of interesting points. Here's my favorite:

In the real world, we can isolate who the first superhero was according to super-powers. The first guy to have super-powers and who was a good guy was the first superhero. (Thunderhead.) But the first person in literature to have super-powers and who was a good guy was Gilgamesh or somebody. Which doesn't necessarily advance our discussion. Because on the one hand it's easy to have super-powers in legend or in fiction, and on the other hand hardly any of the people with the super-powers behave like superheroes or supervillains.

For instance. Jesus could obviously do stuff that your average joe could not do, and by all accounts he was a good guy. Do we then have to call him a superhero? We could, I guess, but how does it help us to understand what guys like Greyghost and Bob are up to? It doesn't, that's how.

So if we're talking about modern, mask-wearing, here-I-come-to-save-the-day type superheroes, we need something other than super-powers to identify them. And Ingrid's prof has decided that there are two flags to look for: 1) fighting crime, and 2) the secret identity. And it has to be routine crime fighting, too; if you just want revenge on some people like the Count of Monte Cristo did, that doesn't count. And the secret identity has to have two pieces to it; you have to switch back and forth between one and the other. So the Lone Ranger doesn't count either, because he was Lone all the time.

It's weird. We could have had superheroes at any time. There was nothing stopping some guy like One-Eyed Jack from putting a bag over his head and going out to bust up some drug dealers decades ago. The secret identity and the crime fighting don't depend on the powers. But none of it happened until the powers came along. Why?

On the other hand, there was nothing stopping anybody from writing about secret-identitied super-powered crimefighters centuries ago. But they didn't, until the 20th century. Why?

Anyway. The only other thing in the paper that grabbed my attention was the trackback of just who was the first literary superhero. Obviously Superman was the one who put superheroes on the map. But even before Superman, there was a hero called the Crimson Avenger in comics. This was all in the 1930s. And even before that, outside of comics, there was Zorro, starting in 1919. And even before that, there was the Scarlet Pimpernel, in 1905. If there was one before that, Ingrid's prof didn't track him down.

Oh, and this is one of the things that appeared in the footnotes.
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