Accepting the Superhero Genre
By Erin Elizabeth Fraser
March 26, 2012
Recently, Chronicle screenwriter Max Landis unleashed a Youtube parody of the 1992 blockbuster DC event The Death and Return of Superman. Seen here, the video hilariously reenacts the events of the multi-issue arc and speculates on the editorial meetings that brought it about. Through analyzing the storyline, Landis touches on many aspects of mainstream superhero comics and fandom. But his main thesis is that “The Death and Return of Superman” fundamentally broke the concept and implementation of death in superhero comics.
To prove his point, he cites a multitude of DC and Marvel characters that have died and been subsequently resurrected in the past decade. However, Landis never addresses the fact that death and revival was already an accepted narrative convention in superhero comics Alfred Pennyworth, Jean Grey, Elektra and even Lex Luthor had died and been resurrected. Nor does Landis consider that Superman’s resurrection was inevitable given the character’s mythic makeup.
While the video is compelling and its jokes about superheroes and fandom ring true to those that follow comics, it never probes deeper in to the nature of death in the superhero genre, or in turn, the nature of superheroes themselves. By again focusing on Superman, we can come to an understanding of the genre he created as well as his inherent immortality.
Being the first superhero, Superman established the conventions of the genre and the storytelling structure.
In his 1962 essay, “The Myth of Superman,” Umberto Eco explores the nature of the character and the unique narrative formula that develops to maintain him. As the title suggests, Eco describes Superman as mythic. He writes that he “is a myth on condition of being a creature immersed in everyday life, in the present, apparently tied to our own conditions of life and death, even if endowed with superior faculties.” Superman’s mortality is crucial to his relevance, for if he were immortal, and a god, the reader would no longer be able to identify with him.
It is noteworthy that Eco addresses Superman’s mortality 30 years before his eventual death and resurrection. He understands that the character must be considered as mortal, but any permanent change on his characterization is null and void. Ultimately, Eco places Superman in between the classical heroes of myth and novelistic characters: he must both remain fixed signifier and be open for development. As the strongest man alive, he “finds himself in the worrisome situation of bring a hero without an adversary and therefore without the possibility of any development.” Eco concludes that Superman “gives serious problems to his script writers,” because he is “aesthetically and commercially deprived of the possibility of narrative development.” Thus, “little by little, varying formulae are offered to provoke and justify a contrast.”
Eco cites most notably the introduction of Kryptonite to the mythos, which gives Superman a weakness that his enemies can exploit. But it’s a weakness that Superman can easily overcome by using his superior intellect to evade or escape villainous traps that bring him in contact with it. Decades later, when creators decide to kill Superman, they construct a similar obstacle with the villain Doomsday. He is an adversary literally invented for the sole purpose of bringing down our hero, and fashioned as his equal in strength for narrative plausibility. Thus the writers create dramatic tension, without taking away from the superiority of Superman. The Kryptonian “sleeping coma” is similarly a narrative construction which serves to maintain the status quo and bringing our hero back.
So why must we accept this? Landis clearly wants the death of Superman to mean something, and for him that would have meant permanency or at least a death that lasted longer than eight months. When we read a superhero comic, we inherently buy in to the genre and the conventions that govern the genre. Whether Landis likes it or not, it isn’t within the genre to maintain enduring change.
The superhero genre has developed a complex story structure that allows it to tell new stories without effecting change. Eco writes that Superman’s adventures take place “in a kind of oneiric climate;” he “happens to live in an imaginary universe in which, as opposed to ours, casual chains are not open (A provokes B, B provokes C, C provokes D, and so on, ad infinitum), but closed (A provokes B, B provokes C, C provokes D, and D provokes A), and it no longer makes sense to talk about temporal progression on the basis of which we usually describe the happenings of the macrocosm.”
Ultimately Eco surmises that “Superman comes off as a myth only if the reader loses control of the temporal relationships and renounces the need to reason on their basis, thereby giving himself up to the uncontrollable flux of the stories accessible to him [or her] and, at the same time, holding on to the illusion of the continuous present.”
There is a certain degree of suspension of disbelief that comes with buying in to the Superman narrative, and in turn all superhero narratives. Whether knowingly or not, we accept that the world does not function as our own and that these characters are not bound by the same laws of nature. They are fiction, and the power that they carry is ultimately that with which we impart to them in the process of suspending our disbelief.
Unlike myths, which are fixed and established, the DC and Marvel narratives are continuously in a state of creation. The story is continuing before our very eyes on our weekly visits to the comic book store for monthly installments. Creators are free to find the fictional universe at various points in its history, and to tell the various stories that come out of these characters. Despite contradictions, all of these things exist within simultaneity of one another. The large scale fictional universe is in a state of continuous flux, as creators experiment, invent and reinvent storylines and characters; but also continuously double back on themselves, and revert to the status quo in order to find new storytelling possibilities and stories to tell.
During his spotlight panel at San Diego Comic-Con 2010, Grant Morrison said that the death of a superhero is always meaningful if it is well-written. I believe this holds true, though I would add that is also needs to be well-drawn, because it is the alchemy between words and pictures that produces comics magic. The point is, it is all the execution; a good comic is a good comic.
The Death and Return of Superman wasn’t a particularly good run of comic books. It was, however, extremely successful, gaining widespread media attention and selling out practically overnight. Its success lead to further story stunts, which spun in to further large scale event crossovers, which has lead to the current publishing climate and event fatigue. The concept of death isn’t broken in comics; but comics fans have adjusted to instability in the DC and Marvel universes, and as a result grand gestures no longer carry much weight for readers.
Despite criticism, these market strategies continue to top sales charts and produce quality books from time to time. Some will find this instability unsatisfying and manipulative, as Landis suggests, but it doesn’t need to be the case. In essence, by following contemporary superhero comics readers are required to adjust to these grand and variable changes, and it can be a fun and crazy ride for those willing to go along with it.
The Death and Return of Superman ? Max Landis’ Hilarious Parody Video