Filing Cabinet of the Damned

Monday, May 15, 2006

The Essential Superhero, or Why Captain America is an Anglo Bruce Lee

The first issue of Civil War has hit the stands, and I let out a teeny grin when I heard the Comic Blogosphere make reference to one scene in the issue, time and again. It reinforces a pet theory of mine.*

Comic book superheroes are inconsistent and vague. They have to be. Even if a writer intends for a character to be distinct, that distinction tends to get lost over the years when the character falls into different hands. Nineteen writers later, who the hell can say what Batman is “really like?” Is he a driven, borderline-loony vigilante? A smiling scoutmaster with a cool belt of tricks? The patriarch of a huge clan of like-minded adventurers? He’s all of the above; it depends on what issue you buy.

If you step outside of comics, I believe it gets a little different. To regular folks, the heroes are understood as icons. They represent basic, simple ideas in funny clothes, a visual shorthand for something. Each successful character has one, maybe two, core traits.

These core traits form the character’s appeal to a reader, traits that both Phineas Q. Fanboy and a regular person on the street can appreciate. Ignore that trait and the hero becomes a cypher, an indistinct brightly-colored blob on paper. Include the trait and any portrayal is basically right.

My pet theory is that you can identify a character’s essential trait, the trait without which the character ceases to exist, by the little frisson of “woo!” you get when you see it used.**

Granted, this is all my opinion, but I think it holds up.

Take the most iconic of superfolk, DC Comics’ big three.

Superman, for example, has the essential trait of “Super Powers Are Cool.” He flies! He lifts heavy stuff! Sure, he stands for truth, justice, and swell-osity, but those are byproducts. What’s the Essential Trait of Superman? The old ads put it best: you will believe a man can fly.

Superman provides the frisson of “woo!” when he uncorks his mighty powers and makes with the awesome.***

Batman has the essential trait of “Scaring People Is Cool.” He skulks! He fights human monsters! Granted, there was his “happy Scoutmaster” period of the Fifties, but that was an aberration. For most of his history, and when he has been most successful, Batman was about scaring bad guys, casting that menacing shadow. Batman provides the frisson of “woo!” when he frightens those who frighten normal people. (His "scoutmaster" period is derided to this day because it failed to make with the woo.)

Wonder Woman is stickier. I’d say her essential trait is “Magical Princess Come to Kick Ass Is Cool.” She’s the Fairy Princess from a magical kingdom, come to dispense two-fisted justice and a kind word to the ugly brutish world we live in. Wonder Woman provides the frisson of “woo!” when she brings out her otherness in contrast to the “Man’s World.” (I think. WW fans, please lemme know if you have a better idea.)

Marvel’s biggest name has an obvious one. Spider-Man’s essential trait is “Everyman With Powers Is Cool.” Spider-Man is, at his core, a regular guy who happens to have superpowers. The gulf between his regular life of spotty employment, girl trouble, and head colds and his superhero life of high adventure and fame has long been his central appeal.

Superman also carries the appeal of the gulf between hero and schmuck, but the flavor is different. Superman is a god in disguise as a mortal. His “everyday man” travails last just as long as he decides to let them. Spider-Man is a regular guy whether he wants to be or not. His powers do not end his problems, they just change them. Spidey’s frisson of “woo!” comes when his Spider-life and his regular life collide: he loses a job because he was busy saving the city one afternoon; Peter’s high school bully is Spider-Man’s biggest fan; and so forth.

Then there are the others. It’s not too hard to determine a popular character’s essential trait. Hulk? “Angry Child Breaking Stuff Is Cool.” Wolverine? “Stabbing Stuff Is Cool.”****

Which brings me back to Cap and Civil War #1.

What did all of them bloggers dig?

When Captain America unloads a giant crate of whoopass on a room full of high-tech soldiers and escapes from an impossible situation.

Sure, Captain America is often saddled with all sorts of political ideas, or at least the writers try to do it sometimes. After all, he’s a walking flag. And there is his status as the cleanest of the clean-cut, the most righteous of them all.

But that’s not his essence. Not really. The symbolic importance of his name and flag-jammies come and go. Englehart and DeMattis made a lot of hay out of it. Kirby and Gruenwald didn’t. His purity of heart is important, sure. But what’s the core? Cap’s sine qua non?

The essence of Cap is “Kicking a Lot of Ass Is Cool.” The quintessential Cap moment is not him giving a speech about freedom. It’s Captain America entering a room with fifty bad guys and smashing the whole group singlehandedly. Preferably as their leader yells, “He’s just one man!”

Granted, most superheroes could do it. But very few of them actually do. Wiping out a Room Fulla Suckas™ is a distinctly Captain America scene, made fun and exciting by his lack of superpowers. Sure, Iron Man or Thor could crush a room full of goons by blinking, which makes it dull and a little disturbing. Cap has only courage, his fists, and a silly-ass costume. Thus do his mass beatdowns provide the frisson of “woo!”

Captain America is the dude who fights the hordes and wins. He is the Tough Guy. He is Badassedness Incarnate. He is Bruce Lee recast as Anglo.

No, really. He is.

Early in “The Chinese Connection,” an angry Bruce Lee visits a Japanese karate school, seeking to challenge its headmaster to a fight. The students, contemptuous of the man, get in his way. Lee unloads three metric tons of whoopass upon the crowded room of trained fighters, smashing them all in record time.

Now that there, that was a Captain America moment. One man, with only skill, courage, and great abs, takes on a small army and kicks the crap out of every last mother's son?


* I have a lot of pet theories. Most are crap. I kinda like this one.

** A corollary to my theory is that any character whose essence can't be defined will never be iconic. If you can't find the woo, the character's a second-stringer.

** Traditionally, Superman had another Essential Trait: the secret identity of Clark Kent and its accompanying “love triangle” with Lois Lane. I'm on the fence about it as an Essential Trait, as it’s been gone for fifteen years and it hasn’t killed the character. Remove the “love triangle” and he’s still distinctly Superman; remove the Super Awesome Powers and he’s not Superman anymore. Then again, to the non-fanboys of the world, the Clark/Supes/Lois "triangle" is huge. Hm.

*** Well, it is.


  • Harvey, if you don't immediately start a running feature spotlighting various heroes called "The Frisson Of Woo", you are guilty of criminal negligence to the blogosphere.

    Yeah, this was that good (and smart).

    Well done.

    By Blogger Chris, at 9:36 PM  


    By Blogger sean witzke, at 10:32 PM  

  • I'll follow you as far as Superman and Batman, but Wonder Woman really doesn't have a shtick. She's been changed so many times and fiddled with so many times that she doesn't have a consistent gimmick or identity. She's the third of DC's "Big Three" by accident of history, as the third DC superhero character to continue from the Golden Age on through to the Silver Age without being cancelled, replaced or rebooted, but her identity certainly has never been consistently "the Fairy Princess" or "the Warrior Princess" or "the kung-fu fighting woman in the Emma Peel jumpsuit." Her role and her personality have been screwed with too often for too long for her to actually have the iconic value everyone assumes her to have.

    The third of comicdom's "Big Three" iconic superheroes isn't Wonder Woman or anyone from DC - it's Spider-Man. As the Everyman superhero, he was the first character whose popularity soared on the premise that maybe it wasn't all that cool to be him.

    I imagine the reason the Comic Blogosphere paid so much attention to the "Cap surfs on an airplane" scene is because (1) it was one of two action scenes in the book, and everyone had already read the first scene in previews, and (2) superhero fans like action scenes. There's a lot of superheroes who routinely beat up tons of enemies in big "ass-kicking" set pieces - Daredevil versus hordes of ninjas, for instance, or Wolverine - so Cap's not unique in that regard. But his status as a walking symbol of America - whether as just a jingoistic prop ("Captain America, Commie-Smasher!") or as a representation of some higher ideal - has always been there, and that's what makes the character unique.

    By Anonymous Moose N. Squirrel, at 10:47 AM  

  • When I started playing the "City of Heroes" game, one moment really sold me forever.

    My character, a 6'6" lass with an eyepatch called The Americommando (an Invulnerability/Super Strength Tanker, if you know the game):

    I was looking for a "Captain America" style experience with her, and in one of her early missions, I got it - single-handedly beating the crap out of a room full of 20-odd Nazis!

    That was fun....

    By Blogger David C, at 1:16 PM  

  • Superman has another major defining characteristic: he's a big Boy Scout. I don't mean this derisively. He's both upstanding and almost unfailingly polite. The Boy Scoutness covers the fact that he could kill you by staring, or breathing, or shaking your hand. I love the scene with the cat burglar in the first Superman movie- Superman is downright charming while the thief is ready to pass out. He'll make speeches to Lex Luthor & Brainiac that come off as almost restrained ("You'll never win, you madman!" vs. terse, pithy tough guy phrases).

    By Anonymous Mike Loughlin, at 9:24 AM  

  • I didn't understand why everyone was anazed that Cap could beat up a room full of highly trained soldiers - that's one of his trademark bits, along with tossing his shield.

    The long-winded speeches didn't come until the '70s - even though I love them too.

    I guess the lack of notable action scenes in Marvel comics these days made this one stand out all the more.

    I think you're correct about Wonder Woman as well. In all her incarnations, she is still the heroine out to smash war and brutality and add a kind word or two.

    Bad writing over several decades hasn't erased that, showing that Diana is a true icon who transcends comics.

    The Lois-Clark-Superman triangle is huge, even though the comics has survived without it. Whenever Superman is adapted to another format, the triangle - or some form of it - is re-instated.

    Great post!

    By Blogger The Fortress Keeper, at 4:29 PM  

  • I'm with Mike L. on this one. As a matter of fact he beat me to calling Superman the big Boy Scout. His deciding trait is that he is a really, really nice guy with powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men. His greatest (by which I mean most memorable) moments aren't things like fighting Doomsday. They're the moments where he has a chance to abuse his power and doesn't because he's just too good a person. Its what makes him a good counterpart to Batman. Superman is incredible power held rigidly in check by his morals and willpower. Batman is incredible ability created by his willpower. Both are strong characters defined by their primary drives..

    Wonder Woman? Eh, not so much.

    By Blogger Pope Impious XXIII, at 6:05 PM  

  • You totally didn't even mention the X-Men. "Fighting for equality and other social issues is cool!"

    By Blogger Nyx, at 12:05 PM  

  • Sorry, like it or not, but ask nearly anyone on the street what Cap's essential trait/"elemental wooness" is, and the answer will be, "One man fighting for America against insemountable odds is cool." That's just the way it is, and without that duty bound patriotism, he ceases to be Cartain America.

    By Blogger aaron dumin, at 5:58 PM  

  • Wow. You're so right. I'm with you on Wonder Woman's frisson of “woo!” but I'd have to call it 'Amazon' Ass Kicking Chic Is Cool. For me Wonder Woman is the ultimate, tough, smart, ready to lay the smack down; while remaining a woman type. She never has to veer into ball-cupping territory to stand along side Batman and Superman in the Big 3.

    Moments like her mere appearance sending Huntress, Shayera, Black Canary and Vixen into 'no way out alive' mode—from the JLU Animated Series—never fail to send me into the gleeful woos!, subsequent beatdowns included.

    By Anonymous sherin, at 8:01 PM  

  • One of the moments I liked with Cap in the Civil War comic was actually off screen, where they are reviewing what happened and one of them says 'Yeah after he landed the jet he took the pilot out for some ice cream' or something like that. That is what makes him cool just as much as when he wipes the floor with the extras, you can just see him doing exactly that sort of thing.

    By Blogger Brett, at 9:56 PM  

  • I don't think the marriage ended the Lois/Clark/Superman Triangle -- I think it just recast it. The byplay Clark's two sides is a constant in their relationship. It's always there -- moreso when he's in costume and she has to pretend that Mrs. Kent Isn't Superman's Girlfriend. It's the Elephant in the room.

    Honestly, the biggest change from the Silver Age is that, rather than Lois trying to uncover the dual identity, now, she gets to help Clark protect it.

    By Anonymous Athelind, at 11:39 PM  

  • My logic of picking "whupping up on a room fulla suckas" as being Cap's Essential Trait is based on his historic portrayals. His status as a Living Legend, Symbol of America, etc. hasn't always been at the forefront of his character.

    During his initial solo stories in Tales of Suspense, back in Lee/Kirby days, he was all about trashing large crowds of bad guys. It was his signature bit. That he was a man dressed as a walking flag was barely discussed.

    Another part of my logic, such as it was, was that you could ignore Cap's patriotic angle and it would still read like a Captain America story. (Many Cap stories lack any ties to his status as a symbol of anything, and many of them still supply the "woo!") But if you removed his Sucka Trashing, he wouldn't feel like Cap anymore. Such is my opinion, anyway.

    Aaron Dumin does phrase it in a better way: "One man fighting against insurmountable odds is cool." Yeah, that's more accurate. A lot of Cap's big "woo" moments come when he fights not against hordes of bad guys but against insanely powerful foes, and wins anyway.

    But if I wrote it that way, I couldn't have worked in the Bruce Lee parallel. Gotta have Bruce! That parallel was key!


    By Blogger Harvey Jerkwater, at 9:58 AM  

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