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From Hero to Super: The evolving dynamics of the heroic literary figure in comic books

Since 2008 and the release of the Iron Man movie, superheroes became a cornerstone of the entertaining industry. The mediatic impact of companies such as Marvel or DC Comics rapidly promoted these characters as emblematic figures of what is commonly called the "pop-culture". Cinematic and literary symbolic productions are now filled with them, and it is not rare anymore to see novels adapated from comic books being released. In this way, it appeared relevant to propose a brief comparative analysis of two figure types of literary narrative structures: heroes and superheroes. By comparing different iterations of the hero and superhero type throughout varied major works of classic literature and comic books, we propose to analyse the evolution of the heroic figure in literary mediums. Firstly, the analysis of their similarities will expose, in a second time, their differences, to finally draw the evolutive dynamics of the heroic figure.

"Hero" and "superhero" being widely used term in the linguistic spectrum, it occurs necessary to propose their definition by the Encyclopedia Brittanica, in order to specify their use over this article:


"Hero, in literature, broadly, the main character in a literary work; the term is also used in a specialized sense for any figure celebrated in the ancient legends of a people or in such early heroic epics as Gilgamesh, the Iliad, Beowulf, or La Chanson de Roland. [...] they transcend ordinary men in skill, strength, and courage.""
"Superhero, a fictional hero - widely popularized in comic books and comic strips, television and film, and popular culture and video games - whose extraordinary or "superhuman" powers are often displayed in a fight against crime and assorted villains, who in turn often display superhuman abilities"

Figure 1: Hercule defeating the Hydra. Painting by Pollaiuolo A. (1431-1498 CE).



One of the main feature characterizing the heroic figure, whether in its classical or in its "super" iteration, is its "extraordinary" quality. He or she is not an ordinary character, and they don't totally belong to the same reality of common people. The most salient illustration of this characteristic is their particular abilities. Indeed, both hero and superhero types are capable of transcending the material and scientific laws ruling the reality as common people knows with their "supernatural abilities". Classic and graphic narratives provided many examples of their heroes bending reality to their powers, and some of the most iconic ones could be, for the classic iteration, Hercules with its labors allowing him to demonstrate his magnificent strength, and Superman for the superheroes, whose name itself demonstrate his superiority over humans. These two characters share the ability to go beyond the "logical" codes of their reality, and to model it :


"The other [Superman] the pinnacle of otherworldly power." (M. Waid, A. Ross, 2016, p. 75)



Figure 2: Superman & the Justice League. Cover illustration by Alex Ross for DC Comics (2007).



But logic is not the only constitutive element of "normal" people's life that the heroic figure is going over. Heroes and superheroes are effectively often guided by a particular fate, a superior force guiding them through existence in order for them to reveal these exceptional capacities. Hercules was conceived by the King of Gods Zeus himself, as a hero able to help both mortals and Gods, and this lineage directly relates him with the notion of divinity. Superman, on the other hand, is not even human, even if evolving among them and, most important, identifying as such. His very nature places him at the center of cosmic schemes, involving the notion of Universe itself. While classic literature is filled with monologues representing it, like in the Odyssey, a noticeable episode emphasizing the omnipresence of a superior force interfering with the existence of an heroic figure is an episode of the Kingdom Come comic book, by Alex Ross and Mark Waid:


"You...see into my mind...my soul? You are an angel...?
"Of a sort. A higher power has charged me with the task of punishing those responsible for this coming evil." (Ross, Waid, 2016, p. 28)

In this episode, a protagonist named Norman Mc Cay, meets "The Spectre", an old and recurrent character in the DC Comics universe, who symbolized many ontological notions such as death, justice or religion. His mystical appearance introduces the reader to a universal force even superior to the superhero himself, reinforcing the similarity between him and the classic hero, who is also somehow determined by a similar force, such as fatum. Both of these iterations of the heroic figures are effectively superior to common people. Yet, they both seem subdued to even more powerful dynamics.

So, heroes and superheroes share essential characteristics that directly establish a straight lineage between them. Both hold a power strong enough to elevate them from "normal" people, but both still seem submitted to superior dynamics emanating from different types of superior forces.



Figure 3: Alex Ross, Cover of Kingdom Come, 1997.

Although, it would be a reductive perception of these two iterations of the heroic figure to totally assimilate heroes and superheroes. One of the main difference between them is their polymorphic, or not, nature. Indeed, while the classic hero is a highly standardized figure with an established and predictable ethos, dictated by strong artistic and thematic codes, the superhero is a way more versatile protagonist. Both these figures are representative of the time they were created in, and superheroes are not as standardized as in classic periods because the spectrum of the codes regulating the literary structures is wider in modern and post-modern eras than it was during classic periods.

A relevant illustration of the heroic figure being a reflect of the artistic and social codes of its time is to be found in the relationship it maintains with the previously exposed superior force. As a matter of fact, the hero from classic era is usually born to his role, and his own superiority is due to his divine ascendance. On the other hand, the superhero is less dependent on any divine or superior presence to fill his role. By passing from classic heroes to superheroes, it is an antropomorphic dynamic that was being operated. The episode of Kingdom Come previously retranscribed illustrates pretty well this dynamic, with the dialogue between him and Norman:

"If you are truly a being of great power... How is it you can find no way to avert this catastrophe?"
"That is not my task." (Ross, Waid, 2016, p. 29)

While the hero was a statement related to divinity, the superhero is, paradoxally, a reflexion on humanity. The plurality of subtypes of superheroes in itself illustrates this anthropomorphism, as well as the double identity of many of them. For instance, when he is not Spider-man, Peter Parker desperatly tries to lead a normal teenager life, and Clark Kent, the Superman's alter ego, is an attempt for a superior being to blend with humans. Batman, another iconic and long lasting figure of superheroes, is nothing but a human being with superior intelligence, extraordinary skills and resources; a human fighting entities that would appear out of reach for humanity:



Figure 4: The Batman. Illustration by Capullo G. for DC Comics (2012).


"In their day, they were the truest representatives of their kind...one [Batman], the zenith of human fortitude and ambition..." (M. Waid, A. Ross, 2016, p. 75)

These words pronounced by The Spectre perfectly illustrate the tight link between super heroes and humanity. While classic iterations of the heroic figure are directly related to divinity and a perception of the world as ruled by the divine, superheroes are the manifestation of a more anthropocentrist perception of the world. Even though these last hold similar powers and capacities to classic heroes, these capacities are a symbol of humanity not being ruled or submitted to divine forces. The fact that ancient gods themselves, like Thor, can be found and associated with human beings scientifically enhanced, like Captain America, definitely shows the proximity between Man and God that came along with the evolution of the heroic figure. In this way, it also shows the evolution of the perception of reality through the different stages of philosophy, from mystical and religious to logical and scientifical. Although, to resume classic philosophy to mysticism would be mistaken, the codified and standardized representation of heroes in classic literature justifies such a parallel, as narratives are part of symbolic productions, meant to a represent a particular aspect of a culture.


In this way, a relevant interrogation would be to reflect on the value of the "super" prefix. While its superlative value could designate the superior essence of the heroic figure, and more precisely the superior capacities of superheroes, it appeared that they share these with heroes. But rather than defining this superiority to normal people, since this notion is already present in the "hero" term in its classic acceptance, the "super" prefix could be indicative of a human perception of reality, a reality where humanity and its heroes are no longer submitted to the divine, but evolving along other superior forces, such as science or cosmic presence, more representative of a modern and post-modern perception of reality. Because heroes and superheroes share this essential characteristic, which is being representative of the time they were developed in, they are actually different, in the sense that they both represent the different perceptions that human beings have of reality during this time:


"The Gods of yesteryear no longer walk along the humans, [...] They have lost themselves in ancient civilizations and future times, [...] They have left humanity to its own fate." (M. Waid, A. Ross, 2016, p. 43)
Bibliographical References

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Hero". Encyclopedia Britannica, 21 Sep. 2022.

https://www.britannica.com/art/hero-literary-and-cultural-figure. Accessed 10 February 2023


Finger B. , Kane B., Batman, in Detective comics n. 27, (1939).


Lee S., Ditko S., Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy (vol.1) #15, (1962).


McCloud S., Understanding comics: The Invisible Art, William Morrow & Co, Reprint edition, (2001).


Misiroglu, Gina , Sanderson, Peter and Eury, Michael. "Superhero". Encyclopedia Britannica, 15 Aug. 2022. https://www.britannica.com/art/superhero. Accessed 10 February 2023.

Ross A. , Waid M., Kingdom Come - The 20th anniversary edition, DC Comics, (2016).



Visual Sources

Cover image: Ross A. , Waid M. (2016), Kingdom Come - The 20th anniversary edition, DC Comics. Retrieved by:

https://www.tomshw.it/culturapop/grandi-eventi-dc-speciale-kingdom-come-1996/


Figure 1: Pollaiuolo A. (1431-1498 CE), Hercules and the Hydra, Public domain. Retrieved by:

https://www.worldhistory.org/image/2876/hercules-and-the-hydra/


Figure 2: Ross A. , Waid M. (2016), Kingdom Come - The 20th anniversary edition, DC Comics. Retrieved by:

https://dc.fandom.com/wiki/Kal-El_(Earth-22)?file=Justice_Society_Vol_3_10_Textless.jpg


Figure 3: Ross A. , Waid M. (1997), Kingdom Come - Soft cover edition, DC Comics. Retrieved by:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_Come_%28comics%29#/media/File:Kingdom_Come_(DC_Comics_1997_softcover_edition).jpg


Figure 4: Capullo G. (2012), Batman 03 (Variant), DC Comics. Retrieved by:

https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Batman#/media/File:Batman_3_variant.jpg



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