(I am scarce around here because I am simultaneously grappling with impending burn-out—I'm 240,000 words into a 300,000 word project, which is to say, neariy 800 pages into a 1000-page story, and it's hard going because my natural length is closer to 30,000 words—and trying not to scream myself hoarse with rage because politics. (Ahem. That is: we swim in a media environment that is designed to act as a potent neurological depressant, the various incumbents are currently covering possibly the most important election campaign I've lived through, and about two-thirds of them have a partisan agenda: the cognitive dissonance is getting to me.) But anyway: happy fun blog thoughts, or at least not overtly political blog thoughts, now follow.)
Where do heroes come from?
I will confess that I find it difficult to write fictional heroes with a straight face. After all, we are all the heroes of our internal narrative (even those of us who others see as villains: nobody wakes up in the morning, twirls their moustache, and thinks, how can I most effectively act to further the cause of EVIL™ today?). And people who might consider themselves virtuous or heroic within their own framework, may be villains when seen from the outside: it's a common vice of fascists (who seem addicted to heroic imagery—it's a very romantic form of political poison, after all, the appeal to the clean and manly virtue of cold steel in subordination to the will of the State), and also of paternalist authoritarians.
But where does it come from?
I've been reading a lot of superhero fiction lately (The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar, Turbulence by Samit Basu, the Velveteen books by Seanan McGuire, to name but four: I'll even confess to Carrie Vaughn's superhero spin-off series, and others besides) and pathologically failing to get around to reading Supergods by Grant Morrison—I am remiss, and my ability to absorb dollops of theory after a hard day of scribbling is very small ... but it seems pretty damn clear that the superhero archetypes hail back to the polytheistic religions of yore, to the Greek, Roman, Norse, and Egyptian pantheons and their litany of family feuds and bad-tempered bickering. (And is it just me or are half the biggest plots in
superhero pre-monotheist mythology the punch-line to the God-Father (or occasionally one of his more troublesome sons) failing to keep his cock to himself, and the other half due to a jealous squabble between goddesses that escalates into a nuclear grudge-fest until suddenly Trojan Wars break out?)
We have this in common with our 5000-years-dead ancestors: we're human beings, and our neural architecture hasn't changed that much since the development of language and culture (unless you believe Julian Jaynes—and I don't). We still have the same repertoire of emotional reactions. We still have a dismaying tendency to think it's all about us, for any value of "it" you care to choose. We fall for a whole slew of common cognitive biases, including a complex of interacting heuristics that make us highly vulnerable to supernatural beliefs and religions. (The intentional stance per Dennett means we ascribe actions to intentionality; confirmation bias leads us to assume intentionality to natural events because this is something that's been bred into us throughout the many millions of years of predator/prey arms races that weeded out those of our ancestors who weren't fast enough to correlate signs such as lion prints at the nearby watering hole with other signs like Cousin Ugg going missing and realize there was a connection. So our ancestors looked on as lightning zapped another unfortunate Cousin Ugg, felt instinctively that there had to be a reason, and decided there was a Lightning God somewhere and he'd gotten mad at our tribe.)
We have other biases. We look at people with good skin and bilaterally symmetrical features (traits indicative of good health) and we see them as beautiful (hey, again: we're the end product of endless generations of organisms that did best when they forged reproductive partnerships with other organisms that were in good health), so obviously they've been blessed by the gods. And the gods bless those who are virtuous, because virtue (by definition) is what the gods bless you for. So beauty comes to be equated with good; and this plays itself out in our fictions, where our heroes and favoured protagonists are mostly handsome or pretty and the villains are ugly as sin ...
This isn't just a fictional trope. Look at the studies of physical appearance and pay levels in business: the taller you are, the higher your earning potential, and the fatter you are (fat is currently associated with sloth and greed—both vices) the less you earn. (Again, look at US presidents: they're all freakishly tall, and it's very common for shorter candidates to be weeded out earlier in their party primary selection process. The POTUS is a hero role—the father of the nation and all-protector with the power to throw nuclear fireballs or send Reaper drones to slay the tribal enemies. No surprise that candidates for POTUS have to look heroic, inasmuch as this is possible when there's a threshold age for entry of around 40 years and the uniform is a lounge suit.)
But back to fiction: we also have the reification of good and evil. People who believe in such a dualistic eschatology often find it quite hard to explain just what constitutes good or evil; as the judge said in the pornography trial, "I know it when I see it". I say that it's entirely an artefact of where you stand; good is what I think is good, evil is what people who disagree with me think is good. The inability to separate subjective detriment from objective detriment is at the root of a lot of our social failure modes: from morality legislation along the lines of "this is no good for me, therefore we must forbid everybody from doing it", to the blood feud. It's a very handy tool for constructing the plots that underlie narratives of human tragedy, as long as you don't take it at face value (in which case you get paper-thin ugly caricatures of villainy battling it out with two-fisted pretty-faced righteousness, and you just know in advance how that is going to end).
Okay, simple thesis: superhero fiction and imagery is very largely a throwback to an earlier age, to the clan-based hero/villain narratives of polytheism, the great tragedies of lust, betrayal and revenge. By giving the protagonists of fiction supernatural powers we can amplify the drama of their confrontations: turn up the gain on the emotional nuances, present with dramatic immediacy and impact questions about philosophy—the will to power, the limits of moral behaviour—that are for most of us, most of the time, remote abstractions. All of this is a major tool in the arsenal of the fantastika, allowing us to examine these themes of empowerment and morality in a contemporary or alternate setting without the handicaps of excessive realism (as with hard SF) or the other problematic issues of genre fantasy (do you pick high fantasy, with the distancing and frequently questionable cod-mediaevalism of its settings, or urban fantasy, with its raft of cliched vampire and werewolf lore?) ... to some extent the cold war spy thriller also enabled these fantasies of super-agency, by placing mundane trenchcoat-wearing office workers at the fulcrum of terrible forces, but it was a clumsy and indirect approach, more reminiscent of the form of Lovecraftian horror (as I've written elsewhere). Giving the agents and antagonists personal superpowers (as Lavie Tidhar does in "The Violent Century") works so much better at highlighting the human consequences of tragedy.
Superhero fiction emerged in its modern form in the 1920s and 1930s, at much the same time as science fiction. (I think it's no coincidence that these forms emerged just as mainstream literature decisively turned its back on the fantastic, while ongoing accelerating technological change and the social tensions of the Great Depression and the rise of duelling totalitarian ideologies took hold on the popular imagination.) At times it was used for much more experimental work, but from the early 1950s onwards the dead hand of the Comics Code Authority crippled its efficacy as an expressive fiction format in American literature, with particularly detrimental effects on the depiction of female and ethnic minority empowerment (no, seriously, click that link: Saladin Ahmed has done your homework for you and there is stuff there that you probably won't believe). But from the late 1970s onwards the effects of the CCA—and, in the UK, the Obscene Publications Act (1958) (which gave the police extraordinary powers to seize and destroy anything they deemed "obscene", with the onus on the accused to prove that it wasn't with their liberty in jeopardy if they took the case to court) began to fade. And since then we've seen, first, the flowering of graphic novels (permitting long form story arcs to progress and develop, with character studies far more detailed than the previous norm in weekly or monthly 16- or 24-page comics), and subsequently the adoption of some superhero tropes in SF/F written fiction, and the huge boom in the Marvel and DC movie franchises.
The big movie breakthrough was probably the 1978 Christopher Reeve Superman movie, a big budget film that was groundbreaking in the way it handled both storytelling and production values for what had hitherto been perceived by the film industry as "kids stuff". And I don't think it's a coincidence that 20-30 years later we're seeing a boom in literary fiction that uses with the tropes of superhero/supervillain comics.
Novelists don't really hit their stride until they reach their late 30s to 40s; the generation who grew up with post-Superman movies and the likes of "V for Vendetta" and Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" were ready to take the rich source material of modern mythology seriously in a way that most of their elders (honorable exceptions like Kim Newman notwithstanding) were not. We're probably still 20-30 years away from a superhero novel winning the Booker prize, much less the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I wouldn't write the idea off as fantasy; the re-legitimization of the art form into the mainstream of literature is visibly on-going, and its assimilation is probably proceeding faster than that of SF—a spiky, chewy, unlovable form that is hard for the humanities to approach. (The tools of hard science fiction are much trickier and slipperier to handle than those of the fantastic, because the cultural divide in our educational systems deprive many of the people following the literary and cultural track of the tools they need to engage with science and technology effectively. Whereas myth and legend comes naturally to the hands of people whose education, even if it doesn't directly engage with the Greek and Latin classics, is pervaded by the writings of the literary elders who did.)
As for me, I'm writing this blog entry to keep track of my thoughts on the subject for another matter: the afterword to Laundry Files #6, "The Armageddon Score". Which is complete in first draft, and will be published in July 2015, and deals with the matter of superheroes. Because in today's fast-moving hyper-colourful world, a literary character study of a middle-aged civil servant's mid-life turmoil, marital breakdown, and career crisis really needs Dolby surround sound, spectacular special effects, and lots of skin-tight lycra. At least, that's my story, and I'm sticking to it. (It started with two elevator pitches: A character study of a middle-aged female civil servant's marital and career breakdown (with super-heroes), and—the action-oriented version—Bob's exes form a superhero team: together, they fight crime. Make what you will of this, I'm saying no more until this time next year.)