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  1. #1
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    Default CBR: When Words Collide - Jan 11, 2010

    Tim is joined by author Steven Withrow this week for part one of a lengthy conversation on the superhero archetype, discussing why characters like Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man matter so much more than the others.


    Full article here.

  2. #2
    I'm Rich. froinlaven's Avatar
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    That was damn good article. It's funny to me because this is the kind of stuff me and my friends talk about.

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    You Never Stood a Chance olympichero62's Avatar
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    Pretty good read, I must say I'm excited to see what the next article is a about. Wish they would have expanded on Wonder Woman a little more. People need to understand why they should nt be in the "Big 3"

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    Yes...THAT Scavenger Scavenger's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by olympichero62 View Post
    Wish they would have expanded on Wonder Woman a little more. People need to understand why they should nt be in the "Big 3"
    Because girls are icky?
    Static Pulse: That's why I like you. You're like four degrees away from being a William Gibson protagonist.

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    Old Fogey Ebon's Avatar
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    Any character can be a "reflection" or "shadow" of an archetype, but when writers try to cross those new or minor players to the pantheon of major characters, they instantly bump up against the prevailing archetype and are most often found wanting. Gravity gets squashed by Spider-Man, to use one example, because they too closely fill the same emotional need and aesthetic desire for the reader (independent young heroes struggling with the responsibilities of power with optimism and humor), and so they can't comfortably share the same narrative space (i.e., the Marvel Universe) over the long term.
    I don't see it. I could take or leave Spider-Man, but I'd be all over a Gravity series. To me, they're totally different characters and I like Gravity much, much more.

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    Quote Originally Posted by froinlaven View Post
    That was damn good article. It's funny to me because this is the kind of stuff me and my friends talk about.
    It's one of my favorite subjects. A great read; looking forward to the next one.

    Quote Originally Posted by Ebon View Post
    I don't see it. I could take or leave Spider-Man, but I'd be all over a Gravity series. To me, they're totally different characters and I like Gravity much, much more.
    Are you really suggesting that a Gravity series would be as successful as Spider-Man?

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    Senior Member bongoes's Avatar
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    Great column.

    Quote Originally Posted by froinlaven View Post
    That was damn good article. It's funny to me because this is the kind of stuff me and my friends talk about.
    I wish my friends liked talking about this kind of stuff.
    Pull List: Action Comics, Green Lantern, GLC, GL: New Guardians, Justice League, The Flash, Batman Inc, Batman, Nightwing, Batman & Robin, Dial H, Animal Man, Frankenstien, Earth-2

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    Old Fogey Ebon's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Thad View Post
    Are you really suggesting that a Gravity series would be as successful as Spider-Man?
    Yes. With the right writer/artist combo, anything can be as successful, but that's not what I'm saying. I'm saying I like Gravity a great deal more than I've ever liked Spider-Man. My tastes are certainly not anything like the mainstream comics buyer, though. I'd buy a Justice/Marvel Boy series over any X-Book produced since 1980, for example.

  9. #9

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    I like the discussion so far. I'd like for it to eventually encompass Captain America (Soldier, Patriot) as well, since he is one of the oldest characters in Marvel's pantheon and is therefore one of it's earliest reflections of Superman. Namor and the Torch I presume are more refractive. I guess Cap is one of the Greek or Trojan Warriors, but he didn't get his "Achilles Heel" until Stan and Jack brought him back in the 60's. Hope you guys hit all the major characters at Marvel and DC.

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    Thanks, all. I'd love to hear more of your thoughts about the myth of the superhero.

    Ebon -- I like Gravity as a character, and I could definitely see him as a successful second-tier character. To imagine him as part of the Marvel pantheon, however, I still wonder what emotional need he might fulfill that isn't already addressed by Spider-Man and others. He ties in well with next week's discussion of iconic and dramatic characters, though.

    As for Wonder Woman's role in the DC Universe, that's a tough nut to crack. On some level, I think the image of an immensely strong, proudly independent warrior woman is still disturbing to a great number of people -- both boys and girls, men and women -- and this limits her instant appeal. I don't feel this ought to be the case in our slouching-toward-enlightenment era, yet I can't deny that Wonder Woman remains bothersome as a heroic metaphor.

    Wonder Woman might represent the unity between the two different world views symbolized by Superman and Batman -- which means she should stand at the center of the DC pantheon -- but I think she's developed as a more feminine reflection of Superman rather than any kind of synthesis. If this were meant to happen, I think it would have happened already just by virtue of the relative power of the archetypes involved.

    A true synthesis of the "savior/no savior" duality is difficult to imagine and hasn't emerged yet in any type of literature as far as I'm aware. So we yearn toward the Superman dream, and we learn to cope with our Batman lives.

    Maybe in Taoism there are hints of a third way? I don't know.

    The poet John Keats called the capacity for accepting uncertainty and mystery "negative capability." Perhaps what we really need is a superhero who can help us to reconcile -- or maybe even do without -- our two superheroic absolutes. I'm not sure Wonder Woman, great as she is, is the one to do it. Could such a person even be a hero, let alone a superpowered one, based on our general conception of what that word means? Is it even possible to conceive?

    What do you think?
    Last edited by Steven Withrow; 01-12-2010 at 07:45 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by videofarmer View Post
    I like the discussion so far. I'd like for it to eventually encompass Captain America (Soldier, Patriot) as well, since he is one of the oldest characters in Marvel's pantheon and is therefore one of it's earliest reflections of Superman. Namor and the Torch I presume are more refractive. I guess Cap is one of the Greek or Trojan Warriors, but he didn't get his "Achilles Heel" until Stan and Jack brought him back in the 60's. Hope you guys hit all the major characters at Marvel and DC.
    Cap will be a subject in our next week's discussion. Glad you're enjoying it!

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    Default Tricksters and Everymen

    I think that the discussion of Spider-Man as the Trickster in mythology was dead on.

    I do disagree with the notion that Spider-Man doesn't work as an adult. The actual, adolescent Spider-Man lasted a very short time. Peter was an adult for far longer and many more readers came to know him as a college student and working Joe than they did as a true 'teenager' and the image of the teenage Spider-Man has been created more by Saturday morning cartoons than by the actual comic book character. I'm not going to deny the influence of this image or its power, but when I (as a kid in the 1980s, and I mean a kid... I was Joe Quesada's 'mythical' eight year old reader when I first found comics) went from the adolescent antics of the cartoons to the little triumphs and tragedies of the adult Peter Parker, I found the latter far more satisfying. I found Peter the Everyman to be far more reflective of my childhood challenges and trials.

    Spider-Man (and all the Marvel 'pantheon', really) is about how humanity drags the pantheon back to Earth. Human frailties and the challenges of everyday life are a far greater threat to Peter Parker than Doc Ock ever is to Spider-Man. There's a great story from when I was a kid... Peter and MJ are in vacation and he falls asleep in the sun and gets a severe sunburn. Then he has to suit up as Spider-Man and fight a gang of thieves despite the sunburn.

    Without trying to be too critical of Mr. Withrow's views, that kind of storytelling has far more to do with the smile many fans in their thirties and forties get when they think about Spider-Man than growing up with the teenage Spider-Man. Spider-Man was a twentysomething when I was a kid, and I had no problem identifying with him despite that.

    Fans my age never read about a teenage Peter in the comics and he was married to MJ for most of our lives... and yet we loved Spider-Man.

    Peter Parker is the Everyman. Someone who has little triumphs even when everything is going down the toilet and little tragedies even when he's found true love and a steady job. When done right, his experience mirrors the human condition rather than merely the 'young adult' or 'adolescent' condition, and that speaks to fans regardless of our age or his.

  13. #13

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    Thanks to Tim and Steve for starting this discussion. I want to point out that this is the tip of an iceberg.

    Archetypes! Pantheons! Oedipus! Universal forces and nature abhoring a vacuum! Ah, the value of Greek tragedy and science to the mental library of the story teller. Sophocles and Aeschylus provided us with the equations that describe the motion of bodies in a comic book shop-- why they gravitate toward certain titles and the forces repelling them from others. What Tim and Steve are doing is cranking through the math for our education. It's a valuable lesson.

    The scholars have limited the scope of their math to individual environments, though. They talk about Batman/Superman and Gravity/Spiderman separately, without demonstrating how these universal forces are truly universal once you start putting them side by side on the comics shop shelf. There may be separate chambers, but there's only one pantheon. The laws of storytelling physics dictate that a pantheon can only be so large though, and the joint's pretty crowded.

    Ask your average John Q. on the street to name some superheroes. I submit you'll get the following before they start looking up in the air and going "uhm..."

    - Superman
    - Batman
    - Spider-Man
    - Iron Man
    - Wolverine

    Supes will always be first. He's the superhero. The name alone coronates him on Zeus' throne for eternity. Batman and Spidey are interchangeable, depending on who you ask, and Iron Man and Wolverine get mentioned because of their recent notoriety in films. However, if 'Star Wars' had been marketed differently the last two might fall off the plate in lieu of Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker. Even the Hulk and the Fantastic Four wouldn't make it off the tip of the tongue. "Recoil" has had its way with them.

    Spawn? Hellboy? Not getting much recognition. Great characters and stories, but they recoiled back out of public consciousness soon after their movies. The comics themselves still regularly appear on the monthly list of top 100 sellers, but there are a few Ewoks and Zombies penetrating that arena as well. It's also important to note that those two characters are in the top 100 books, of which several titles are dedicated to the same characters. What this means is that these two characters don't make the guest list for the pantheon, which has substantially fewer than 100 members.

    Perhaps this leads us to one element (out of thousands) that led to the incredible success of Watchment. Instead of trying to create gods and muscling them into the existing pantheon, Alan Moore created a completely new pantheon from the ground up and wrote corresponding rules for its guest list. His "costumed adventurers" would never merit a spot in the pantheon we typically conceptualize, and likewise for any "traditional gods" trying to gain access to his pantheon. Once he was free of that crowded house and its internecine politics, his characters could romp across the stage with plenty of elbow room. They strutted their stuff, free of the obligations of superhero tropes, and we awed at them for it.

    Wolverine, The Punisher, and Deadpool are great examples of characters that have been able to break into the pantheon, but Wolverine falls close enough to the birth of the Marvel Universe to be considered a primary character, if not a founder. The closest analogy would be Apollo, who was a child of Zeus but still a fundamental personality. Punisher and Deadpool are bit players, making their way off stage as quickly as they make it on in cameo appearances, mini-series, and abortive attempts at longer runs.

    And that's the mathematics that Sophocles and Aeschylus discovered. Through a method of exhaustion very similar to the one Archimedes used to discover Pi, they derived laws governing stories and characters that are just as incontrovertible and enduring. You can sum them up as:

    - There can be only one Zeus
    - There can be only so many variations of lesser gods resembling Zeus
    - The total capacity of the pantheon is directly proportionate to the interest of the audience and the creativity of the storyteller(s)
    - If the total number of gods exceeds the capacity of the pantheon, then the universe will recoil and destroy gods until equilibrium is reestablished.
    - The likelihood of a god being destroyed is directly proportionate to the similarity it bears to an older god.

    Like the Pantheon of Greece, the cast of American mythology is fairly well chiseled in stone. At the same time, not even that monument will last forever even with all the care and attention given to it. People will always want to see something new. While the American Pantheon has been great for the last eighty years, the Japanese, Paficic Islanders and Koreans appear to be building a new one with their Zeus, Naruto, on the throne. There's no reason to doubt the Europeans could build another one out of spies, cowboys, and seafaring adventurers later on. That doesn't mean ours is "doomed". After all, we still remember Zeus. But it does mean a new cast will entice audiences just because it inhabits a new building. How many people have gone to see IMAX movies just because they were in that giant format? Same with books. People will gravitate away from capes and tights because, well, they've seen that before. Thankfully, the novelty of ancient buildings won't be lost on newcomers to the genre, and restoration efforts will keep the marble columns standing tall for centuries to come. Custodians of the genre won't have to work that hard because, thanks to Lee, Kirby, Siegel and Schuster's dedication to Sophocles' laws, the structure's foundation is solid.

  14. #14
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    Hmmm...Interesting discussion. I agree that Wonder Woman requires more exploration. I must disagree, however, about Spider-Man. He's just not a trickster. Despite being a spider, like Anansi, and being funny, he does nothing else that tricksters do. He doesn't cross boundaries like tricksters do--such as changing genders. He doesn't create or transform things, so he's not a culture hero in that sense. He doesn't constantly foul up the universe--only his own life. He's not ruled by his apetites like tricksters are, always looking for food and sex. You can't be a trickster and be an everyman.

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    On the spectrum between "brute" and "trickster," Spidey falls solidly on the trickster side. He's far from Conan the Barbarian or The Incredible Hulk. He's also not an extreme, self-serving, Loki-like trickster. But, like Bugs Bunny before him, he's a comedic creature of wit, strategy, dexterity, and subtle duplicity, with a healthy respect for random chance and the carnival absurdity of his own situation. He's a creator (webshooters, tracers, etc.), transformer (swings around in a circus costume changing the fates of hundreds of city-dwellers almost every day), and boundary-crosser extraordinaire (who else swings from skyscrapers and regularly escapes the NYPD to protect total strangers from magical maniacs?). Even his name is transformative: half spider, half man, forever in flux.

    He's a bug always about to get squashed, but he manages to finagle his way out. His very existence brings goblins, gunmen, gargantuans to his doorstep.

    I don't see "trickster" and "Everyman" (another word for central character) as mutually exclusive terms. When I hear "Everyman," I tend to think of the traditional stages of human life: birth, childhood, young adulthood, parenthood, old age, and death. Peter Parker's a young Everyman in that he's stalled (by design) as a young adult, never progressing to fatherhood, old age, or death. Writers choose to push this age boundary (JMS in Amazing; Bendis in New Avengers) or push away from it (Bendis again in Ultimate Spider-Man).

    We're now seeing a form of recoil in action, I believe, with Sony's decision to reboot the Spider-Man film franchise now that they've taken the adult Spidey to his logical extreme without having him completely "come of age" and lose his inherent, iconic appeal. This makes sense to me, as I easily identify with Peter as the "grown-up son" of Aunt May and Uncle Ben, but I find it difficult to accept the notion of Peter and Mary Jane as becoming parents in their own right. It becomes someone else's story somehow.

    Dramatically, it's interesting to watch Peter Parker grow into a man. Iconically, it's much more troublesome. (More about drama and icons in next week's discussion.)

    Excellent discussion!
    Last edited by Steven Withrow; 01-12-2010 at 05:08 PM.

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