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Theory of Fantasy Literature 102: On Superhero Fiction


The first installment of the series covered the most prominent sub-genres of fantasy, but it has not explored everything that fantasy has to offer. This continuation of the series will look into sub-genres that have been omitted from the previous one. However, it will also discuss some adjacent genres, like science-fiction, fables, and fairy tales, all of which are fantastical, but none of which constitute an actual sub-genre of fantasy.

Theory of Fantasy Literature 102 is divided into six chapters including:

1. On Dark Fantasy

2. On Urban Fantasy

3. On Superhero Fiction

4. What About Science-fiction?

5. What About Fables?

6. What About Fairy Tales?

Among all fantasy sub-genres, superhero fiction has risen to the top of the contemporary cinematic production. Some of these are adaptations of comics, but most allow themselves significant departures from the “canonical” storylines. Yet, all of them preserve the core ideals established by the tradition of the superhero genre. After a brief overview of the origin of the (sub)genre, its place among other fictional products will be discussed in order to explore whether it can have a proper position in academic discourse.

Figure 1. Heroes in Crisis Cover Art. Mann, C. 2019.

The central element of superhero fiction is, of course, a superhero-like protagonist. Such a character can be identified using “the definitional characteristics of mission, powers, and identity” (Coogan, 2006, p. 30). One could say that the mission is what makes one a hero and the powers they possess earn them the adjective super. The third facet “comprises the codename and the costume, with the secret identity being a customary counterpart to the codename” (Coogan, 2006, p. 32).

These theoretical markings are best understood when demonstrated through an example. If one considers the character of Superman, the symbol of hope on his chest perfectly encapsulates his character's mission of being the protector of Earth and mankind; his powers are widely known and they include, but are not limited to, flight, superhuman strength, and solar energy absorption; his costume successfully hides his adopted identity of Clark Kent.

Such “specific genre identification” can be traced to “Journey into Mystery #83 (August, 1962), the cover of which specifically identifies Thor as “The Most Exciting Super-Hero of All Time!!”" (Coogan, 2006, p. 26). However, the first character that possessed traits of the modern superhero is Spring-Heeled Jack, an urban legend adapted into fictional stories that ascribed to him a troubling origin.