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Author Topic: What's so friggin' GREAT about World War II, anyway?  (Read 22369 times)
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Kurt Busiek
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« Reply #8 on: November 17, 2005, 09:24:01 PM »

Quote from: "JulianPerez"
It really says something about how narrow the comic book superhero genre is considered to be that when Kurt Busiek did ARROWSMITH, a comic book that is, in essence, a superhero story about men that fly with dragon boots and baby dragon sidekicks in World War I, filled with the fanciful fantasy elements that define superhero comics, like sea monsters and flying ships and rock trolls and satyrs immigrating to the United States - and yet nobody is calling it a superhero comic.


I don't think that says anything particularly narrow about the superhero genre -- the only reason, to my mind, to think of ARROWSMITH as a superhero story is that it's a comic book, which makes the association closer.  But Fletcher Arrowsmith fits very few of the classic superhero tropes.  He doesn't have superpowers (his "powers" are the result of training and technology; anyone can be taught to do what he does and thousands have been), he doesn't wear a costume (military uniform), use a codename, he isn't on a self-directed idealistic mission (he's idealistic, but he's a soldier, doing a job under military command).  The people he works with and fights are not unusual -- they're a normal part of his world, one that's been around over a millennium.  Tell the identical story in prose, and ARROWSMITH is solidly, unequivocally genre fantasy, no more a superhero tale than LORD OF THE RINGS or OPERATION: CHAOS.

And sure, there are exceptions to all the above superhero tropes -- characters who are considered superheroes who don't have that aspect (Batman has no powers, Doc Savage has no codename, the Hulk has no idealistic mission and on and on), but very few who don't have any of them.

That said, I think much of the appeal of World War II comes from people creating superhero worlds that "feel like" what they already like.  In the case of ASTRO CITY, it's that way because I want to tell stories in a setting similar enough to the general superhero world so that I can roam about in it as I please, while it's still mine to shape and develop.  But I want a Golden Age era because I want those resonances.

I could see creating a superhero world where the heroes first arose during he McCarthy Era, but that puts a different spin on them, one that would affect the characters even in the present, which is fine for those who'd want to tell that story, but that's not what I want for that particular series.  

And there are superheroes that have no Golden Age heritage at all -- the Power Rangers, the Charlton heroes (before they were brought into the DCU), Nexus, the Shadow, Zorro, the Topps Kirbyverse and so on.  Those who do, it seems to me, do so either for the same reasons DC and Marvel do (they were around then or are built on characters who were) or because they're emulating that kind of structure.

Or because Nazis are cool villains.

I've been playing around with ideas for a superhero shared-world setting the last few years, and I have no idea whether I'll ever do anything with it, but you'll be happy to know there's no Golden Age era to it.  There might be some characters who are the result of Nazi eugenics experiments, but they emerge generations later, and there is no Lobster Johnson or Captain America in their past.

kdb
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JulianPerez
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« Reply #9 on: November 17, 2005, 10:29:09 PM »

Quote from: "Maximara"
I see what you are saying but I think the above is the fact that because of the slump the Comic book marked is in no one really wants to experiment. Even the RPG suppliment GURPS Supers fell into the above pattern - heroes emerge during WWII, McCarthy and the HoUA cripples them during much of the 50's the 60's sees a rebirth and so on.


Do people buy a game series because you’d get a “store brand” version of the Big Two Universes? Maybe. At least the way I figure it, if I’m going to have a Brand X Superman, I might as well have him be the ACTUAL Superman!

Quote from: "Johnny Nevada"
Well, true except for the pre-Crisis Earth-One anyway, which depending on which decade one views Superboy as having debuted in, didn't have any superheroes during World War II...


True, but not ENTIRELY true. Nightwing pointed out that BRAVE AND THE BOLD had the Earth-1 Manhunter active on Earth-1 at the same time as his Earth-2 counterpart -  making him the one World War II hero active at the same time on both earths. Also, Superboy’s early adventures are set clearly in the 1930s, at least at the beginning; like the Marvel Heroes, the date of Superboy’s adventures have “slid” further and further up as time went on. In one of the two-parters for SUPERBOY AND THE LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES (the one right after they fight Grimbor the Chainsman) the Legion returns to the era Superboy lived in, and it was clearly the 1960s, down to the black and white televisions and underground nuclear testing.

Quote from: "Permanus"
The look, feel and staple accessories of superhero comics -- sleek spaceships, outlandish costumes, ray guns -- were created during the 1940s, and have a sort of late Art Nouveau quality, so it makes sense that, when creating a superhero-populated universe, you sort of feel obliged to explain this by imputing its origins to that period. True, this may impose certain artistic restrictions on the genre; it's just a difficult thing to shake off.


This may be the most direct explanation for the phenomenon, although ray guns and rocketships were around from 1900-1960. Just the same, the World War II period seems to be the Locus for all superhero activities.

The 1930s Art Deco aesthetic is absolutely wonderful (it’s part of what makes TOM STRONG so much fun) and the patriotic “beat back the devil” directness and flag waiving of the 1940s equally so, however, superheroes are so broad that they can work with many kids of visual aesthetics, styles, and times. Lots of great superhero stuff, for example, was done with a distinct 60s counterculture vibe: Ditko’s DR. STRANGE, Jack Kirby’s JIMMY OLSEN and FOREVER PEOPLE, the AVENGERS issues that have Captain America reading Tolkien and saying “far out.”

Quote from: "Permanus"
In a way, the superhero is a sort of metaphor for the atom bomb: a very powerful thing that can change the world.


Someone once said that the world would be more different the FEWER superpowered beings there are, and the more like ours the MORE there are. The reason the Watchmen world is so different from our own is because there’s only one Doctor Manhattan. On the other hand, the reason the Marvel Universe is so much like our own, Viking Gods and Russian super-monkeys notwithstanding, is that there’s a Charles Xavier to block Magneto’s objectives, and vice-versa.

Quote from: "Kurt Busiek"
The people he works with and fights are not unusual -- they're a normal part of his world, one that's been around over a millennium.


The idea that what defines superheroes is that they are special and not a normalized a part of the way the world works that society takes into account, may not necessarily be the definition of a superhero. Some interesting work is left to be done involving a setting where superheroes and the superpowered are incorporated into a setting: the fact that superheroes exist changes how the world works, in a more profound ways than the Big Two universes.

One of the things that was most interesting and innovative things about the Silver Age Green Lantern is that he is a “cog in a vast machine,” as the DC Encyclopedia put it, someone whose superheroism is incorporated into worldbuilding: the Guardians, the other Green Lanterns, and so on.

Quote from: "Kurt Busiek"
I don't think that says anything particularly narrow about the superhero genre -- the only reason, to my mind, to think of ARROWSMITH as a superhero story is that it's a comic book, which makes the association closer.


Interesting point, that medium does play a role in classification. If Roger Zelazny’s LORD OF LIGHT or E.E. Smith’s Lensman books was anything other than prose novels – a movie, television show, a comic book, they would probably be called “superhero” due to the superpowered, confident protagonists and monsters.
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Kurt Busiek
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« Reply #10 on: November 17, 2005, 11:44:58 PM »

Quote from: "JulianPerez"
Do people buy a game series because you’d get a “store brand” version of the Big Two Universes?


Probably.  They likely want the game so they can have adventures like the ones in the comics rather than to break new ground.  I'd similarly expect games based on pulp storytelling to feature the kind of thing you'd see in the pulps, including faux-Fu-Manchus, rather than, say, pulp-adventure recast in a cyberpunk world.  The latter might be interesting, but not what they're selling.

Dungeons & Dragons, after all, offers store-brand, one-stop shopping for an exhaustive catalog of elements of heroic fantasy and high fantasy, and did quite well with it.  Games that offer significant variations in the way the universe is set up -- like SHADOWRUN, say -- come off as an alternative more than as an improvement.  And even SHADOWRUN captures a pre-existing subgenre.

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Quote from: "Johnny Nevada"
Well, true except for the pre-Crisis Earth-One anyway, which depending on which decade one views Superboy as having debuted in, didn't have any superheroes during World War II...


True, but not ENTIRELY true. Nightwing pointed out that BRAVE AND THE BOLD had the Earth-1 Manhunter active on Earth-1 at the same time as his Earth-2 counterpart -  making him the one World War II hero active at the same time on both earths.


Steel, the Indestructible Man, was an Earth-One hero when introduced, an Earth-Two hero when he turned up in ALL-STAR SQUADRON and an Earth-One hero again when his grandson took on the mantle.  I forget whether they explained it by saying there were two of them or that he was commuting.

Quote
Also, Superboy’s early adventures are set clearly in the 1930s, at least at the beginning; like the Marvel Heroes, the date of Superboy’s adventures have “slid” further and further up as time went on.


The big difference with Superboy is that his timeline didn't slide so much as make great galumphing leaps from time to time.  The stories were set in the 1930s until DC realized that the time gap was too long, and updated Superboy to the late Fifties or early Sixties.  After that, they slid for a bit, so that Superman, Superboy and Superbaby all met JFK.

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The idea that what defines superheroes is that they are special and not a normalized a part of the way the world works that society takes into account, may not necessarily be the definition of a superhero.


Nor did I say that it is, of course.  I don't think there is any one definition of superhero that cleanly includes all those we consider to be superheroes and excludes those we don't -- I think there are hallmarks to the genre, and if a series exhibits enough of those hallmarks, we consider it a superhero series.  But the fact that Fletcher Arrowsmith does things most people can't, given specialized equipment and training, is no different in hias world to a fighter pilot in ours doing things most people can't, because they don't have the equipment or training.

There are ways that characters who match that description can still be considered superheroes -- Green Lantern, for one, as you note -- and many of the Legion of Super-Heroes don't even need specialized equipment; there are millions who can do what they do.  But they have enough other hallmarks of the genre to outweigh that.

Were Green Lantern only to fight aliens and have space missions, there were no other super-characters on Earth, and he didn't have a secret identity, then he'd feel more like an SF hero, albeit one with a pretty sharp costume.  But as a character who fights Dr. Polaris, hides his ID from Carol Ferris and joins up with the JLA, he's a superhero, in much the same way that Dr. Strange is a superhero largely because he's part of the Marvel Universe, but a fantasy character if he wasn't in that context.

Quote
Interesting point, that medium does play a role in classification.


I don't think it should, actually -- I think it's something that skews people's perceptions, brings expectations to the table that wouldn't be there otherwise.

kdb
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Maximara
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« Reply #11 on: November 18, 2005, 06:39:17 AM »

Quote from: "Kurt Busiek"
Quote from: "JulianPerez"
Do people buy a game series because you’d get a “store brand” version of the Big Two Universes?


Probably.  They likely want the game so they can have adventures like the ones in the comics rather than to break new ground.  I'd similarly expect games based on pulp storytelling to feature the kind of thing you'd see in the pulps, including faux-Fu-Manchus, rather than, say, pulp-adventure recast in a cyberpunk world.  The latter might be interesting, but not what they're selling.


Actaully GURPS Supers went for a more extreme version of the Marvel pattern than the one DC had. Ie most of the superheroes of the 1940's were Captain America/mystery men types. So no flight powers until the mid 1950's and many other powers don't show up until the 1960's.
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Permanus
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« Reply #12 on: November 18, 2005, 08:54:32 AM »

I was thinking about Julian's original point yesterday, and was wondering if anyone had ever written about a universe in which superheroes had simply always been around. As he points out, in most superhero takes, the superhero is seen by the general public as a relatively new and exotic phenomenon. This is true even in Astro City, where superheroes are rife, but obviously a pretty recent development.

So I got to thinking about a civilisation in which superheroes have just always existed, as far back as recorded history goes(and even as far back as archaelogical evidence goes). Every generation, a small portion of humanity gets superpowers either by accident of birth, being hit by meteorites or learning the secrets of the Orient. It might be pretty nifty: there'd be nothing really special about superheroes, and people would spend more time arguing about their choice of costumes and name than their amazing feats, since it would be pretty hard for a superhero to come up with anything original. Being a superhero would be a sort of art form. Would there be any myths or even religion? Wars? Beats me.
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JulianPerez
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« Reply #13 on: November 18, 2005, 09:46:41 AM »

Alan Moore said in a TOMORROW STORIES that "Superheroes must love the 1940s. It was the last time they were even vaguely relevant." I'm not the email type, but I really, REALLY wish Alan Moore had an email address so that I could ask him what he meant by this.

One problem, related to the dependency on World War II as anchor point for a superhero universe, that when creating a world whole-cloth, a lot of writers take the approach of viewing worldbuilding like biologists designing an ecosystem. But instead of putting in predators, herbivores and plants, they think of the world as niches that they need characters to fill: "okay, I've got my dark detective type here, my sexy witch here, my team of teen heroes here that are mostly made up of the sidekicks and ex-sidekicks of the heroes in this Justice League-type team made up of the world's Top Dogs..."

This is bothersome not just because concepts are freely borrowed, but more importantly, because it takes the approach that the "only" way a superhero world can be arranged is the way it's been done by the Big Guys. This is unfortunate, because both DC and Marvel had their universes created by a constant process of innovation.

This was especially eggregious in the IMPACT line's introduction of the Red Hood: a vigilante completely like every other heat-packing lifetime NRA member "hero" in every way to the point that there was essentially no difference between him and the other characters of this type. The only conceivable reason to add him is because there was no character like this represented in the IMPACT roster at that time. The Red Hood could have been removed and replaced by the Punisher, or by Rorshach, or by the Vigilante and his stories would have been exactly the same. Granted, this is a fish in a barrel example considering how embarassing most comics fans now find that trend of results oriented violenteers (rather hypocritically, I might add: SOMEBODY had to buy PUNISHER WAR JOURNAL because they kept on printing the dreadful things, but everybody denies that they did now), but it was created by a flaw in thinking, which is asking "what don't we have?" Instead of "what new concept can we create?"
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Permanus
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« Reply #14 on: November 18, 2005, 10:17:05 AM »

Quote from: "JulianPerez"
One problem, related to the dependency on World War II as anchor point for a superhero universe, that when creating a world whole-cloth, a lot of writers take the approach of viewing worldbuilding like biologists designing an ecosystem. But instead of putting in predators, herbivores and plants, they think of the world as niches that they need characters to fill: "okay, I've got my dark detective type here, my sexy witch here, my team of teen heroes here that are mostly made up of the sidekicks and ex-sidekicks of the heroes in this Justice League-type team made up of the world's Top Dogs..."

Yep, you're quite right there! Much as I've rather been enjoying Marvel's Supreme Power series, it's actually just Superman, the Flash, Batman, the Green Lantern and Aquaman in a different setting. Oh, and Wonder Woman off her trolley. Maybe there isn't that much more you can do with the genre.

No. Musn't think that way. there has to be.
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« Reply #15 on: November 18, 2005, 10:18:34 AM »

Quote from: "TELLE"
I would watch a Robin Hood movie set in the Russian Revolution!  It works for me.  Why choose between archery and redistribution of wealth when they work so well together?

I knew I should have stuck with the porno film comparison.
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