Howdy All and Happy Friday!
Last week I wrote about the basics of the Pulp genre and suggested that the Pulp characters of the 1920s and 1930s had a classic, but not timeless quality to them.
This week, I had planned to take a closer look at a trio of Pulp characters, Doc Savage, the Shadow, and the Avenger, to try to understand why that is case.
To do this, I intended to reduce these characters to their essential elements, which, I would argue, can help us understand why they have not seen the continued popularity that later characters enjoy and, hopefully, determine how to successfully update these characters for a modern audience.
Unfortunately, once I got to writing about my examples of “timeless” characters, I found myself well over the word limit I have imposed on these blog posts.
Rather than cutting much of that material, I have decided that this week I will only be looking at a pair of “timeless” characters, in order to set the stage for the examination of that Pulp-y trio, which I will be getting to next week. My proposed updating of those characters will then follow, three weeks from today.
Even so, that still leaves a lot of ground to cover, so let’s not waste any more words and get to it!
To set the stage for the comparison between timeless and classic characters, I would like to start by looking at two characters whose enduring popularity has clinched their status as timeless icons; Superman and Batman
Last year marked Superman’s 75th birthday and this year, in April, Batman will also turn 75.
Both characters were creations of the very late Pulp period, but they managed to transcend the influences of the contemporary material, and carve out a space for themselves, and their successors, in the cultural landscape by being not just Pulp heroes, but instead, superheroes.
In spite of their age, both characters remain incredibly popular and known around the world. They have been and continue to be found in a variety of media, since they were first created, while their predecessors remain relatively obscure cultural curiosities, known only to fans of the 20s and 30s Pulp period.
To understand why this is the case, it is worth looking at the essential elements of each character; what we get if we strip these characters of all their trappings and look at what is absolutely necessary to make the character.
For Superman’s essential story elements, I cannot think of someone who has done this better than Grant Morrison in the first page of the first issue of his All-Star Superman miniseries.
With eight words, Morrison gives you the key elements that make up a Superman origin story (doomed planet, desperate scientist, last hope, kindly couple) and you can identify all these story elements in every version of the Superman origin story told since his introduction, in 1938.
Even the Elseworlds stories of Superman, where his origin is transplanted to a new time and/or place retain these story elements or they emphasize how the absence of one of these can result in a dramatically different character than what we understand as “Superman.”
An example of such a story is Mark Millar’s terrific Red Son miniseries, where Superman’s rocket lands in a Soviet collective farm in the Ukraine and he is raised by agents of the Soviet state, rather than a childless, but loving, Kansas couple.
Superman’s abilities are also an essential element of the character, but those have changed a great deal over the years. Early Superman stories, in particular, include a wide variety of superpowers (including shapeshifting and mind control) that were later ignored as writers began to get a clearer sense of who the character was.
What have remained consistent throughout Superman’s 75 year history are the following superhuman abilities, famously listed in the 1941 Fleischer Superman cartoons: Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
That phrasing can describe Superman’s powers in, pretty much, every interpretation of the character that has been introduced since 1938 and, therefore, I would suggest that these are also essential elements of Superman.
Finally, Superman is often said to be fighting a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way (incidentally, the “American way” part was not added until 1942, when the United States became involved in the Second World War) and, while those particular words may not always be used, this heroic “fairness” aspect of the character is so common (to the point that some call him the big blue boy scout), that I think that, at the least, it can be said that his striving for truth and justice can be called an essential character element of Superman.
I would note that these essential elements differ from the other trappings normally associated with Superman, which I would argue are, instead, story elements which are not essential to his core essence.
For instance, I would suggest that story elements like Lois Lane, the Daily Planet, Krypto the Superdog, Lex Luthor, and the Fortress of Solitude are trappings that are typically found in interpretations of the Superman character, but they are not essential, in the sense that you can still have a “true” interpretation of the Superman without these elements.
For instance, the Smallville television show had none of these elements, apart from a version of Lex Luthor, for the first few seasons.
In the Man of Steel film, we have no Krypto, no Fortress of Solitude (unless you count the colony ship that is destroyed by the end of the film), and no Lex Luthor (apart from an Easter Egg reference on the side of a tanker truck).
Even in the comics, these elements are not necessarily always present (in the 70s and early 80s, the Daily Planet was written out while Clark Kent spent time as a newscaster and from the mid-80s until the late 90s, there was no such thing as Krypto).
As such, while these elements may be present in many iterations of the Superman character, they are not “essential” in the sense that the absence of one or all of these makes the character unrecognizable as Superman.
Turning from the Man of Steel to the Dark Knight, I would suggest that we can find Batman’s essential elements in the earliest origin story of Batman, written by Batman’s two daddies, Bill Finger and Bob Kane, in 1940’s Batman number one.
The story and character elements of the Batman character referred to in that origin story have, essentially, remained the same in every version of the character presented since 1939, regardless of the time or media in which they are presented (the dead parents, the vow to avenge, the lifetime of training, the inherited fortune, and the scary bat costume).
An example of an excellent implementation of these essential elements is the phenomenal Gotham by Gaslight one-shot written by Brian Augustyn and drawn by Mike Mignola and P. Craig Russell, where the Batman character is presented as a contemporary of Jack the Ripper in the late 19th century.
In terms of trappings, I would suggest that elements like Robin, Alfred the Butler, Commissioner Gordon, and even the Joker that are often associated with the Batman character are not essential to the character, in the same way that Superman’s supporting cast is, for the most part, a collection of trappings, rather than an essential element of the character.
This might suggest that, since neither Superman nor Batman have their friends and foes as essential elements of their character, to truly understand the essential elements of any character, we might start by cutting away their supporting cast.
However, as we will see next week, in some cases, the cast with which a character surrounds himself or herself may be an essential element of that character (like, for instance, Doc Savage’s Amazing Five).
I will return to that discussion next week, but for now, let us turn to see why these two characters are not classics (meaning they are of their time), but, instead timeless (meaning they are of all times).
What does Timeless mean?
To understand what I mean by “timeless”, I would note that, for both Superman and Batman, there is nothing in the essential elements of their characters that ties them to the world in which they were created. By that I mean there is nothing essential to Superman or Batman that links them to, for example, the Depression, to prevailing social mores of the late 30s, or any cultural touchstones of that period that have antiquated racial, sociological, or technological themes.
By remaining free of these period-specific references and characteristics, the essential elements of both characters are easily transportable to almost any other time or place and they will remain recognizable as these same characters, making them timeless, in that you can transplant them to nearly any other setting and they would still ring true as Superman or Batman.
For instance, you could tell a Batman story in pre-revolutionary Cuba or a Superman story set in colonial Africa or a story of them both in Stalinist Russia (which was the basis for the aforementioned Red Son mini-series). You really need only include those essential elements set out above to make the story ring true to the characters, but otherwise the sky is the limit in terms of transplanting them across space and time.
An added benefit to the timeless nature of these characters is that you are free to adopt whatever sensibilities you deem appropriate for your stories, in order to keep them fresh for different audiences (for instance, compare the 60s Batman TV show to the 90s Batman cartoon to the Christopher Nolan films).
This flexibility that comes with a timeless character is one of the reasons why these characters continue to maintain their relevance to “modern” audiences and it goes a long way to explaining why they persist as cultural icons, well into their eighth decade of life.
Same Bat Time, Same Bat Blog
So, with those examples of “timeless” characters set out, we are now free to turn, next week, to some icons of the 20s and 30s Pulps, and see why they differ from their superheroic successors.
I hope you have enjoyed this look at these septuagenarian superheroes, have a fantastic weekend, and I will see you again in seven days!
Until then, I have some drawing to do.
Kevin B. Madison
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