It surprises me sometimes when people dismiss comic books as a light-hearted or unimportant medium, meant only to entertain a young audience. Comics have had a huge influence on ‘higher’ more respected forms such as fine art and cinema, precisely because they communicate visual ideas so well. Part of the attraction is the use of recognizable archetypes. In a few strokes of a pen, a comic book artist can evoke a certain familiar set of traits, set up expectations in the mind of the reader and either reinforce or undermine them. Many American comics make extensive use of the ‘super hero’ trope – the strong heroic warrior type who takes on monsters or other warriors in epic battles that showcase physical strength and magical ability. Other archetypes also abound, including the ‘warrior woman’ (the female super hero), the ‘mentor’ who teaches the protagonist, the ‘ally’ or sidekick, the ‘trickster’ who cannot be trusted and of course the ‘super villain’, the hero’s evil counterpart. Most characters in modern comics are based on some version of the archetypes analyzed in Joseph Campbell’s seminal The Hero With A Thousand Faces, though their origins go back to myth and legend. (Campbell, 1949)
Increasingly, comic book archetypes have found their way into other areas of popular culture, too, sometimes transported wholesale. I’ve been reading and enjoying a collection of essays on this subject recently: Investigating Heroes: Essays on Truth, Justice and Quality TV, edited by David Simmons. The collection delves into the influence comic book themes and archetypes have had on popular culture in general, and film and TV in particular. Many of the essays focus on the super hero archetype which has come to completely dominate American comics culture over the past eighty-odd years, from the golden age of comic books in the mid-twentieth century to the contemporary fad for super hero-inspired TV shows. (Simmons 2011) Indeed, the super hero has so defined the idea of comics in America that the genre is practically synonymous with muscle-bound individuals in capes and tights, though European graphic novels, as well as manga in Japan don’t necessarily follow that rule.
Even American comic book heroes don’t always possess extraordinary powers, though they do typically accomplish extraordinary acts and live out larger-than-life scenarios. In one of the essays in the collection, Naturalizing the Fantastic, Julia Round observes that Batman differs from many of his comic book colleagues as he is neither a super-powered alien, nor given special powers through some freak accident: “… Batman stands out in the super hero ranks: He has no apparent superpowers and instead uses extensive martial arts training, detective skill, intellect, technology, and psychological warfare to combat crime.” (Simmons 2011) Even so, Batman exhibits the classic super hero traits of moral rectitude and a strong if idiosyncratic personal ethical code.
The collection also explores relationship between classic or golden age comics and the film and television industries. Round and Simmons both discuss the Heroes television show, exploring how the well-known American TV series uses the super hero and super villain tropes to inspire and inform its story lines. Heroes was a TV series produced by NBC for four seasons from 2006-2010, in which show runners expressly used comic book archetypes to set up story arcs, making overt reference to the world of comics and comic book art throughout. All the characters discover that they have special powers that set them apart from most people, a common comic book trope. The story arcs in the series revolve around saving the world, learning to make moral choices and the development of the reluctant hero, a classic comic book theme that owes a huge amount to Stan Lee’s writing for Marvel in the 1960’s and 1970’s (Simmons 2011). The series also plays with the idea of visual art determining or prefiguring events in reality: Isaac Mendez and several of the other characters are capable of creating artwork that foretells future events.
Reading these essays set me thinking about how so many of my favourite films and TV shows draw on comic book influences. Aside from the obvious film adaptations of Marvel or DC intellectual property, comic book archetypes show up all over the place in Hollywood, from the rollicking adventures of Indiana Jones to the thrills and chills of the Alien franchise. In the latter, Ripley (the ‘warrior woman’) meets and defeats horrific aliens (the ‘villains’) in a series of larger-than-life adventures. Ripley is athletic, courageous and always up for a challenge, the classic Warrior Woman trope; like Batman, she may not have extraordinary abilities but she does accomplish extraordinary things. There’s a whole genre of Hollywood film that borrows from comic book aesthetics, too, like the overdone costumes and lighting featured in Sucker Punch (2011), or the over-the-top characters and saturated colour palette in Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy (2004), which is itself an adaptation of Mignola’s comic book series. Del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) also pays homage to the long tradition of Japanese manga and kaiju.
In another of my favourite movies, Unbreakable (2000) directed by M. Night Shyamalan, Bruce Willis plays a strong super hero type pitted against Samuel L. Jackson’s evil genius Mr Glass, an art collector whose obsession with comics leads him to commit acts of terror. The whole premise of the film is based around comic book ideas of good and evil, power and powerlessness. While the characters are intentionally archetypal, the action is filmed in a subtle and dreamy manner that seems to subvert the stock story line, so we’re never sure what to expect. The result is a beautiful, unsettling interplay between visual cues and story right up to the final, Shyamalan-style twist.
I really enjoyed discovering the connections the essay writers in Investigating Heroes made between one area I love – comic books – and another I enjoy – action and adventure movies. I’ve been lucky enough to work in both, on films like Tintin (2011) and Thor, The Dark World (2013). This collection of essays set me thinking about my own professional practice, and about how closely related the two fields of comic books and action films can be.
Simmons, David Ed. (2011) Investigating Heroes: Essays on Truth, Justice and Quality TV. McFarland & Co., Jefferson, N.C., USA and London, U.K.
Campbell, Joseph (first published 1949) The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Bollingen Foundation / Princeton University Press, New York, N.Y., USA
DiPaolo, Marc (2011) War, Politics and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda In Comics and Film. McFarland & Co., Jefferson, N.C., USA and London, U.K.
Wainer, Alex (2014) Soul of the Dark Knight: Batman As Mythic Figure in Comics and Film. McFarland & Co., Jefferson, N.C., USA and London, U.K.
Caddy, Becca for Gizmodo magazine, 2016. Online link: http://www.gizmodo.co.uk/2016/03/myths-monsters-and-heroes-how-comic-books-were-influenced-by-the-stories-from-our-past/