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Return of the Knave
Drink It Black
Thursday, 16 February 2006
If you were to group genres according to a set of binary opposites you would likely see science fiction and fantasy linked this way; though the second link should also show how horror is but one muffled heartbeat away from fantasy too.

We've discussed the way in which fantasy and sci-fi are bosom buddies and then opposites in a crystalised breath and perhaps one more example should prove this: take the Golden Age hero Jack Frost a humanoid ice elemental according to the history, and compare him with Hal Jordan. The first is fantasy, right enough, with no better explanation than a secretive Arctic origin but consider the superhero most comprehensively buggered by the writers - worse than Batman's broken back, Superman's "death", Aquaman's loss of a hand, Iron Man's alcoholism - and whom I've lost all interest in.
Subsequent writers may have departed from John Broome's skilful use of the powers to craft storylines, rather than some character flaw in the wielder of those powers, but the silver age Green Lantern does what most revamps of golden age characters do; fills in the blanks by clearing the tommy rot and giving things a more, erm, scientific orgin. Much of the magic is removed and we have the power ring and lamp being handed by an alien who has crashed. That isn't a dramatic departure from the Alan Scott version since much of the space origin is also part of it.

The interesting point of comparison here is in just what a fantastic thing the power ring is; beyond the parameters of science fiction really. Yet that is technically where it resides where Jack Frost's more modest powers are fantasy only.

It's worth noting too that, while the blur of fantasy and SF works in the superhero's favour, the presence of a figure like Killraven or Machine Man while entertaining enough in their own right, do nothing but detract and distract from the powerful original concepts of a War of the Worlds or 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I have never heard of horror being a subset of fantasy, yet it's hard to imagine something that would be a hybrid; they're hyphen worthy
Science fiction, on the other hand, is worlds away in the dark of space.

Romance begs the question as to the manner of fantasy; but it's lonely in outer space.

The major houses have touched on the grand spectacle of wars between alien races: Marvel its classic Kree - Skrull War and DC the current Rann - Thanagar War.

Fantasy is an escape from the reality of war but clashes between various fairy folk are legion in modern tellings.

Science Fiction resides at two poles: there's the weighty intellectual ruminations on how society would develop given a set of circumstances and there's the dogfights in space. Guess which side contains the action. The classic protagonists: Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers of the 25th Century. File under: 'humans conquer space'

And we can look at how action works within fantasy. Fantasy sets up its own constructs but requires movement, even if just repetitive movement.

As with its presence in the other genres surveyed,Action is an element within sci fi and fantasy rather than a cohort.

Could this also apply to drama? Science fiction which bears down on its characters and affects their interactions is the dominant form. We don't think of a sci-fi tinged drama so much as a dramatically-based science fiction story. Ditto fantasy. This could be argued but, clearly, they appear wrapped together rather than being seen as discrete forms.

Adventure in fantasy takes the form of a quest while for techies [cough] the definition of adventure is to boldly go where no fan has gone before

What clues can be found in intergalactic crime or monstrous scientific experimentation for the mystery of space and the space for mystery? Ming the Merciless is a villain and a worthy adversary to the star of the book so he shares as much with Sax Rohmer's creation. DC has reliably flagged mystery in space.
Fantasy puts a microscope to the effect that it has on 'reality'; shows the effect they have on each other.

Science fiction permeates the popular comics and sometimes it even IS comic. A fantasy doesn't need to be amusing, it just needs to be good.

Posted by berko_wills at 3:54 PM EADT
Updated: Saturday, 4 March 2006 3:08 AM EADT
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Saturday, 11 February 2006
Before we go on looking at other genres for the second or third time, let's pause on the barbarians for a while. Sword and scorcery starts and ends with Robert E. Howard and his most popular creation, Conan the Barbarian. Conan has had as many comic books devoted to his adventures as many of the top flight superheroes. There was Conan the Barbarian with the early Barry (Windsor) Smith art, Savage Sword of Conan in the black and white magazine format to allow for more graphic depictions of limbs being hacked off, King Conan.

And though comics companies have attempted to create their own barbarians like Skull the Slayer or Ironjaw, only Warlord has made a lasting impression. But Marvel has produced very good adaptations of Kull the Conqueror and Solomon Kane so perhaps the only rival to Howard is a fellow pulp fiction writer, Edgar Rice Burroughs, who often wrote 'barbarians on other worlds' stories. These two have been adapted, or had new stories written using the characters. Marvel has produced limited runs of Gulliver Jones and John Carter and other companies like Dell have also obtained the license at various times.

Whether it is the spin-off fame of Tarzan that created a demand for more Burroughs or the SF fantasy of bulging muscles and a broadsword, his influence has likewise lasted and all but dominated each character style he portrayed.

You can be sure that sword & sorcery epics that derive directly from the pulps are going to be a better read than Wulf the Barbarian

But as important as all the macho men are to the genre, there is a warrior woman who can kick ass with the best of them: Red Sonja who has made many incarnations and is good in all of them

Posted by berko_wills at 2:04 AM EADT
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Thursday, 26 January 2006
Medicine man
Perhaps the western will always enjoy resurgences. Western comics usually depict a protagonist who bears the character traits of all good protagonists in every genre: fearlessness, selflessness, resourcefulness.

While Matt Hawk is the chronological inspiration for one superhero at least, the supervillain prototypes are over in Kid Colt: The Raven, The Fat Man (and his bewitched boomerang!), Iron Mask. I would contend there's something of the superhero in Lady Rawhide as well.

Horror may not be a naturalistic fit for tales of the western plains but there were certainly western horror tales.

You have to wonder though with curiosities like the space western, whether they can be combined. They've sent Hex into space and yes pitted him against the supernatural. Stories in his natural setting are the best and, really, the best you can get in a memorable western. Little period details are recalled and cults and cultures that were dominant then make an appearance. Genuine villains can be envisioned from the conditions of the time, just as their victims can.
I am not the greatest western fan but I'd prefer to read these exploits before the more fantastic tales any day.

Is the furthest you can ride into the sunset as far as the original Ghost Rider, with all the appearance of a spectral horseman but not really a spook, or part of a milieu where such things existed? While farfetched that someone would wear such a get-up, does that really make it fantasy?

If you look at some sites, the definition of 'western' is broader than just your 'cowboys and indians' and can include the Revolutionary War or War of Independance.

It is another genre where action and adventure are part of it. Romance in the West might be about something else but, again, drama is natural and ever present.

What divides the comic book depiction of past exploits into Western and other (such as sword & sorcery, historical fantasy)? Is it the use of guns vs bow and arrow and guns vs other guns? Is it American History (X) - events leading up to the close of the nineteenth century and divorce from the dusty plain; feted to continue only in Buffalo Bill's revue and racy paperbacks?

We rarely see the work of the detectives of the day so Pinkerton agent, Caleb Hammer's one appearance was particularly welcome; especially since it was a good story and good artwork.

And besides making good heroes, cowboys are also funny.

Posted by berko_wills at 2:52 PM EADT
Updated: Thursday, 9 February 2006 10:52 PM EADT
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Monday, 16 January 2006
Putting aside the fact that the superhero has clear precedence in myth and legend and the pulp fiction of the early twentieth century, the genesis of the modern superhero begins in the nineteen thirties, between wars, so it is natural to expect a correlation between the two.

Comics, though, with the exception of the Commando war books, rarely deal with the ordinary soldier caught up in a combat situation. Two Fisted Tales did a very good job of this and War Is Hell! with its blend of horror also dealt well with the faceless dread. But when a superhero dons a costume, it is bright and spangly - he wears the flag rather than just representing it. Though note the case of Captain America, who is given both his powers and costume by the government and, when he apparently perishes, is replaced by other patriotic heroes Spirit of '76 and The Patriot. This tradition has continued into modern times when Steve Rogers falls out with the government and is replaced, taking on a new identity as Nomad. This idea of the faceless government operative deployed in the war zone is also shown in the personification of the Unknown Soldier.

Naturally romance is rare in a combat zone and only appeared after the war but other things like fantasy and drama combine successfully with battlefield heroics.

Science fiction can always trot out that evergreen War of the Worlds and the macabre aspect of global conflict is represented by Weird War Tales.

As far as I can tell Jonah Hex is the only character who recalls the fact that the Wild West was the battleground for the American Civil War. By the time we read his adventures he is a bounty hunter but he still wears the Confederate uniform.
Now, hot off the presses, is a graphic depiction of the Civil War itself.

Humour and war would seem to be strange bedfellows but the Bluey and Curly strip proved that it was possible.

And you want reality? Lest we forget, the
War artist. Grunts can grunt all they want but you try facing mortar fire with a stick of charcoal and a HB.

Posted by berko_wills at 1:53 PM EADT
Updated: Thursday, 26 January 2006 2:59 PM EADT
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Thursday, 12 January 2006
Although funny animal does not have to be funny, it usually is, and caped critters often have a feature that both plays on their power potential and their name to humorous effect. Underdog springs to mind.

Apart from Joe Casey quips in the Stan Lee tradition, superheroes regularly receive comedic treatment. From normalman, powerless in a world of supertypes to Megaton Man whose exaggerated bulk is reminiscent of those Image titles where everything is drawn large.

Of the other genres that the superhero crosses over with, Ka-Zar may be the token 'Aryan in the jungle' for today's mighty world of Marvel but the one true crossover character is Black Panther.
Having not given sword and sorcery its own entry yet I feel sheepish mentioning Sword of the Atom and that may not be the only reason.

Posted by berko_wills at 1:50 PM EADT
Updated: Monday, 16 January 2006 1:41 PM EADT
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Sunday, 1 January 2006
From the well
There are five possibilities when you find yourself able to turn your body paper thin or you just start wearing a costume and calling out thugs:

  1. become a superhero
  2. be labelled an 'anti-hero' because your cause only intersects with humans at times and your priorities are with your own people
  3. become an anti-hero in truth because your methods of apprehending criminals is brutal if not fatal
  4. remain your slacker self
  5. become a supervillain

    What each of these options, slackers aside, suggest is that there will be elements of drama, crime, and action. Now it is possible that a superhero could use their power to get a kite down from a tree but such fey adventures would not enthrall the average reader, so baddy bopping it is.

    So is there any genre crossover worth talking about? Well, allowing for the fact that many superheroes have fought on the battlefront, making this just a variation on what they do, that leaves the western and spy thriller.
    Masked heroes like the Durango Kid are often written as precursors to the superhero, with the uncanny ability to shoot the gun from outlaws' hands.

    No matter how many mystery men there are who only come out at night, and no matter how dark the costume, however, they are different to Man From U.N.C.L.E.. Spies work for the government in a covert capacity. They dress down more than they dress up (James Bond excepted) though they do share larger than life villains and plots to overthrow the world. The key difference is that many of the superheroes operate as vigilantes and are tolerated by the authorities only to a degree: from the close cooperation of a Commissioner Gordon to the outright hostility you or I would be treated to should we try the same thing in the real world.

    There has been a licensing and corraling of metahumans from time to time, and several plotlines deal with the hero attempting to trap his quarry while at the same time avoiding police or government operatives. But the true synthesis of the two is best exemplified by the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, government agents given their powers and identities by the United Nations and restricted to the task at hand and the need to work as a team.

    Posted by berko_wills at 1:19 PM EADT
    Updated: Friday, 6 January 2006 11:59 PM EADT
Sunday, 25 December 2005
This is a serviceable reading of the superhero genre: that it is an amalgam of crimefighting and science fiction/fantasy. I don't know how much it matters that there are nonpowered costumed characters stopping bank robbers their entire career with not so much as a mad scientist to give them their SF badge.

The crimefighting career of a superhero is prescribed largely; all that indestructibility and movement tells the writer that Steel Sterling battling a drink driver is not the most rivetting use for the character. It isn't just the use of his power (derivative even in nineteen forty)that makes the reader want to follow his adventures either, there has to be something more to Sterling's character for us to care how he's become a costumed spokesman for responsible motoring.

The drama of Ibis the Invincible and the action in Spy Smasher may be as important components as any intrinsic element in the superhero genre itself (say, enhanced powers or the wearing of a defining costume and persona)and Rip Hunter is as much about adventure as it is any thwarting of evil.

The trope of the dead avenger with a singleminded mission to bring a supernatural sense of justice to their killers and all like them, ironically moors your
Grim Ghost in a conventional pursuit of bad guys. He may be a bit harsher in how he treats them than the Hangman. Or perhaps not.

Romance is present in varying degrees, from the stoic and sexless supertypes through to the sensuous and sapphic. It remained secondary perhaps until the advent of Young Heroes in Love, a book that could be called a combination of genres, given how many superhero stories do not feature any love interest at all.

I believe we can get a better sense of which genres the superhero set mesh with if we look at what happens to a person who is many times more powerful than normal. What does this do to their life? What effect is it bound to have?

Posted by berko_wills at 10:49 PM EADT
Updated: Wednesday, 4 January 2006 10:48 AM EADT
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Friday, 16 December 2005
Apologies to all the humanists and spiritualists but it's time we moved on.

Having flown through all the genres, it becomes apparent that not only are some problematic in adequately describing what a particular book may contain but also that there are many that are a combination of genres.

Let's start with the superhero who might be said to inhabit three genres: science fiction, fantasy, and crime.

Consider Captain Atom who combines the hard science of the atom bomb with the SF staple of UFO technology producing a combination that can only be fantasy. No one could survive that blast!

It is inevitable that, even if you're a Human Bomb you'll put aside your incendiary concerns and go after the bad guy; whether that guy is a saboteur or a thief. After all, we can think of advantages for diamond hard skin that the patriotic Blue Diamond would have no time for while there was a war on.

For a hero like the Darknight Detective, his focus on beating criminals was set by the tragedy that defined his life. Even in the year that war broke out. It was only later squeamish comics code curtailing of crime comics that sent he and Robin into space. But this was not true to his calling and, as soon as they could, the publishers were only too happy to have him back on the streets.

Posted by berko_wills at 2:02 PM EADT
Updated: Sunday, 18 December 2005 3:35 AM EADT
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Wednesday, 30 November 2005
In any discussion of religion and fiction (perhaps especially comic book fiction) there is naturally an attraction to mysticism and metaphysics over some rationalist perspective. Not that the free thinkers never get a look in, just that the fantasy world of comics thrives on the magical and mysterious.

This could lead into a discussion on Romanticism, only I want to hold that over till we get talking about literature and the way that literary movements and literary criticism impact on the graphic medium. So instead, let me remark that the mystic traditions of Christianity such as the Rosicrucians and the Knights Templar; and Judaism, in the form of the Kabbalah, run as a very interesting undercurrent to comics mythology. And the freemasons will always be good for a spot of intrigue.
If you want, you can pile in the Illuminati and Club of Rome.

Just as our legends bear the ring of truth in all the hyperbole, so too do comics serve a dramatic need by drawing directly on a real sense of the unknown and the yet to be discovered. Their exaggerated stance illuminating something buried within us.

Posted by berko_wills at 2:11 PM EADT
Updated: Friday, 9 December 2005 1:52 PM EADT
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Monday, 21 November 2005
Religion has come up a number of times in our discussion. While characters with cosmic powers would seem to be a challenge to the omnipotence of any big 'G' God, the moral standpoint works as a good reference point for all but the callous and ambivalent anti-heroes thus we see:

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