Holding Out for a Hero: The Evolution of Superhero Fiction
by: Samantha Bryant
Superheroes are everywhere these days. They are no longer relegated to quiet back rooms of comic book shops where geeky girls like me talk with the two or three other people who know what you’re talking about when you complain about the latest costume changes for Wolverine or theorize about where a favorite series is going to go next.
In 2018, you can find popular heroes and even some more obscure ones on every screen, and adorning the back-to-school aisle at your local superstore.
Superheroes have gone mainstream.
That’s great news for fans of the genre. There’s so much more material out there now! And it’s so much higher quality than it used to be!
The idea of a superhero is hardly new. They’ve been rocking spandex and special abilities in comic books since the 1930s. Arguably, they’re even older than that. Beowulf, one of the oldest works of English literature, is at its heart a story about a man with extraordinary fighting skills taking on a monster. If that’s not a superhero story, what is it?
After comics, it took almost no time for these heroes to make the leap from the page to the stage, starring in serials at the movies like Mandrake the Magician and The Phantom.
Although they’re not new, superheroes have a cachet now that they didn’t have back then. It’s not just geeky sorts like me who love them, but business people, athletes and cheerleaders, grandmothers and their grandkids. You know: everyone. What changed?
I’ve got a few theories.
First, there’s film technology. With CGI, greenscreen, camera techniques, and other shifts in the machinery of film-making, it’s become more possible to portray impossible things in a way that feels real.
We’ve come a long way from Dr. Jekyll falling under his table and coming back out as Mr. Hyde, transformation off screen, or even the grand-for-its-time transformation of An American Werewolf in London.
The Hulk walks, talks, breathes and smashes alongside fully human-portrayed characters like Captain America and Löki, and the eye is fooled. When Superman flies, he doesn’t look like he’s lying on a table with his arms stretched out.
The Uncanny Valley is a lot narrower than it used to be.
Second, there’s the cheese factor. As a child, when I was watching Wonder Woman with Linda Carter in the role, or even a cartoon hero like Underdog, it was clear that the shows didn’t take themselves seriously. The shows seemed to wink at the audience, very aware of their status as lower art (not high literary achievement). We didn’t worry about backstory or internal conflict or any of the things that make a character strong. Instead, we just provided equally cheesy villains and opportunities for a smack-down. The shows were fun, but they were never meant to be anything more than that.
Third, there’s the quality. As perception of these types of stories have changed, they’ve gotten budgets, names, costumes, and writing improvements as well. Actors who have already built careers in other genres happily sign on for a chance to portray these extraordinary characters, and excellent scripts have been written to make use of those serious acting chops. Sir Patrick Stewart’s Xavier as portrayed in Logan was Academy Award caliber stuff. The hard politics of Civil War was about a lot more than which hero would win in a smackdown--it was about which side is right when the issues are complicated and the situation ambiguous.
In comics, which is the seeding ground for the TV shows and movies we’re now enjoying, Hugo and Nebula Award winning authors like Neil Gaiman and Seanan McGuire are writing runs of long standing series, bringing a new level of storytelling expertise and contemporary sensibilities to older properties. I have always loved comic books stories, but there’s a clear step-up in storytelling in recent years. And with these new writers comes greater diversity which is good for us all.
As a fan and a creator of superhero fiction, I couldn’t be happier with these changes. Superheroic characters are an opportunity for exploration of big issues without the baggage that can entail. The removal from the realm of the ordinary takes the sting out of morality arguments even while they make us think and feel and explore the heart of what it means to be human, to be good, and to be heroic.
My own superheroic characters, The Menopausal Superheroes, have some awesome powers and skills. They can fly, transform into bulletproof lizard-creatures, wield fire, and lift semi trucks. But more than that, they are also women who deal with ageism, sexism, and work-life balance while they save the world. In writing them, I’ve found the genre that speaks my heart while still letting me and my readers indulge in play and fantasy and imagination. I can’t wait to see what adventures they take me on next.
Samantha Bryant is a middle school Spanish teacher by day and a mom and novelist by night. That makes her a superhero all the time. Her secret superpower is finding lost things. She writes The Menopausal Superhero series, and other feminist leaning speculative fiction. Her novels are all available on Amazon or by request at your favorite bookseller. You can find her on Twitter @mirymom1 or at her blog/website: http://samanthabryant.com
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Amazon author Page