Friday, February 10, 2012

The Superhero Genre Invades the Last Remaining Outpost of Literary Culture

...The New Yorker: nay, one better: the poetry section of The New Yorker!

I mean, they've long since left their origin-story fortress in comics and taken up in their new base in films; they have made many forays into literary fiction; but surely highbrow, snobbish poetry sections of major magazines were safe? No: nothing can stop The SuperheroMan™!

Here's the poem in question:
The Chameleon

Alone among the superheroes,
He failed to keep his life in balance.
Power Man, The Human Shark – they knew
To hold their days and nights in counterpoise,
Their twin selves divided together,
As a coin bears with ease its two faces.

Not so The Chameleon. He was
Too many things to count, and was counted on
To be too many things. When he came to grief,
As was perhaps inevitable,
His body was overlooked for hours,
Having been pressed by force of habit

Into the likeness of what had killed him.

-- David Orr
Actually a pretty good poem, I think.

Now, I'll do David Orr the courtesy of presuming that he's willing to cop to working within the superhero genre proper. But I have to guess that the editor who bought it thought of it as a supercilious parody piece, looking down its nose on superheroes.*

But what's amazing is how true that's not. This isn't remotely a satire on, or cynical reworking of, or in any other way a distanced version of the genre. There's just nothing like that version of the superhero genre (which is itself, whether it likes it or not (and sometimes it doesn't), part of, indeed at this point a major element of, the genre), one which has been common in mainstream (and other) comics for a quarter century, and which has also been found, albeit less prominently, in film and mainstream fiction and so forth. It's simply a use of the superhero genre to -- well, sort of tell a story, I guess, but mostly to make a poem.

My imagined version of Orr's editor might leap in at this point to insist that no, this is a metaphor. It's not a real superhero piece! A point which could only be made by someone more or less completely ignorant of the superhero genre, given that so many of its core examples are meant metaphorically in basically the same way as this poem clearly is.

So The New Yorker has not only published a poem which mentions superheroes: it has published a straightforward, honest-to-Superman superhero genre piece. As a poem.

Wow. So maybe the Mayan apocalypse is going to happen on schedule after all?

Incidentally, some of the readers of this poem -- hell, maybe even Orr's editor, or even Orr himself -- may believe that the superheroes mentioned herein are fictional... well, no, everyone knows they're fiction. What I mean of course is that people may believe they're original creations of Orr: that he picked these names (rather than, say, Superman and Spider-Man) because they're not preexisting characters -- nor, from a legal point of view, trademarks.** This is, however, false.

Power Man, of course, is a long-established a fairly prominent Marvel superhero (albeit a second-stringer compared to, say, Spider-Man or Wolverine):

Apparently a movie staring Power Man is in development.

And The Chameleon is an equally well-established Marvel Comics character -- albeit a super-villain***, not a a superhero -- having debuted in no less historical an issue than Amazing Spider-Man #1:

Chameleon doesn't seem to have gotten a movie yet, although he's appeared in several tv versions.

Only "The Human Shark" seems to have no direct predecessor in professionally produced works in the superhero genre (although that doesn't mean that he has no predecessor in comics). And The Shark is an established DC comics villain:

And while he's not called The Human Shark, he does seem to be a human shark (according to the text in the image above, he's "an actual tiger shark struck by an unknown form of radiation that in a matter of minutes carried him billions of years up the evolutionary scale, giving him the form of a human -- but retaining in him his vicious, predatory nature."), so points for that.

This has been the illustrated edition of The New Yorker's poetry section.

Update: Reading this post over a day after I wrote it (including, of course, the poem quoted in it) I am drawn to woner whether Orr understands that the notion of a superhero who has "failed to keep his life in balance", one for whom it is not at all true that "they knew/To hold their days and nights in counterpoise,/Their twin selves divided together,/As a coin bears with ease its two faces", is not in the least original with him, but is, in fact, a central recurring trope in the superhero genre. The problem of "bear[ing] with ease... two faces" is the thematic core of a great many superhero stories, and indeed some superheros are designed primarily to fall into that question. I missed this the first time -- and, again, maybe I'm wrong -- but it seems from the poem like Orr doesn't know this. It adds a superciliousness that I didn't hear the first time I read it -- something which, I must admit, makes me like the poem somewhat less (although I still like it, to be sure).

(Incidentally, it seems to me that one mark of a true superhero geek is that, upon reading the line "As a coin bears with ease its two faces", they will think of Two-Face and his signature coin...)

* I have no evidence for this. Quite possibly I'm doing someone a disservice. If so, my sincere apologies.

** Unlike, incidentally, the word "superhero" itself, which (I believe) is still trademarked jointly by Marvel and DC -- a ludicrous example of intellectual property overreach, and one that I applaud The New Yorker (presuming their fact checkers turned it up) for ignoring.

*** I wonder if Marvel & DC think they've trademarked "super-villain" too?

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