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Date Posted: 17:00:34 06/16/16 Thu
Subject: Super Heroes
I've missed this space. Not because it wasn't here, but because I didn't visit. Perhaps, neither did you. We went to other gardens. Other forests.
Fandoms come. Fandoms go. Nineteen years since BtVS came into being. So twelve since she left the stage with a wide smile. Oh, the comic goes on, but… life changes and fans move onto the stories that come next. That inherit from what came before. New seeds to make new-old forests.
In general, real life has meant I've stopped making so many trips to the virtual cedar forest where the giant Humbaba guards the electronic trees for Enlil, god of breath. Words. In former days, I gleefully cut down trees to make long posts. Yet simultaneously was part of the joyous cacophony of that forest. Birds singing their multitudinous point of view songs. Monkeys playing idea drums. Cicadas plucking philosophic strings. These trees spring back the moment you cut them, you see.
Was that poetic enough? Perhaps yes. Perhaps no. No matter, I've a mind to make this journey again.
I little while ago, before distracted by real life concerns, I had made a perhaps too short/too glib short post talking about how I like Supergirl, because it's one of the few super hero shows featuring a woman and listed Wonder Woman (70s), Buffy (90s/00s) as part of my meagre diet. As I said, too quick, and yet though I can think of more, it's the snap thoughts that show what ideas lingered.
I had thought to include Xena, but didn't because since she doesn't have super human abilities. K and I have long thought Xena lives in the Core Universe, because we both read a BtVS fic that posited that idea. I didn't want to get into a digression of whether or not Xena counts as a superhero. Anti-hero. Post villain hero.
I wasn't expecting the response that Buffy shouldn't be classified as part of the superhero genre in the sense of the current wave, because that would miss an important difference in terms of in terms of mindset/worldview.
But that exchange got me to thinking. Am I being retroactively reductive? Or is it that I thought of BtVS as a superhero while I was simultaneously watching Smallville. If one more from Vertigo end of the spectrum. Is it wrong to equate Buffy with Wonder Woman and Supergirl? Is it simplistic to equate her with all the super heroic characters of yore. To a chain of superheroic being that added so many links after she left the stage? We are in the midst of a positively Noahical flood of Supers.
Yet, Super hero stories are both a genre and cross genres. Swamp Thing's Horror. Wesley Dodd's sandy Noir. Or would that be his Detective. Never mind, there's always Batman for either. Green Lantern's Science Fiction. Fable's Fantasy, or do I want new Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chang New 52's Wonder Woman. Never mind, a single comic run could be each by turns.
Or do I even want to restrict super hero to comics?
What's in being a superhero? What is the superheroic world view? What is the BtVS worldview? Certainly different from AtS. Yet both in their way super heroic in that there are powers at work beyond those of mortal ken.
All of which got me to thinking about this garden of thought. This forest of philosophical trees.
So I've picked up the mattock of Enlil and come to the cedar forest rich in resin flowing like rivers into the ravines. This may end up being a lone cicada post. Humbaba lies long dead. Defeated by a hero of mighty strength. 3/4ths god or so I hear. With a very hairy sidekick. Gilgamesh's Father, Lugalbanda, had the speed force don'tcha know. That 21st Century BCE (Before Common Era) figure even comes with an origin story. Poor Lugalbanda, who could not eat the bread and milk that makes men strong, befriended the mighty Anzu birds, and was granted fantastic speed. 21st Century CE (Common Era) Barry Allen hasn't spent much time on tv speed fishing, but I expect it will come. Mighty Ninurta fought a different Anzu while wielding his talking flying weapon. Thor in his movies has yet to face his Ragnarak. Heroes. Certainly. Super heroes?
There's an argument to be made that the term super hero could only be used to refer to comic book characters or comic book like characters dating from the CE. Which I'm sure is valid.
Yet, in Old English, Queen referred to a woman. Any woman. Wife also meant any woman. Lady meant woman who makes the bread. Lord meant man who guards the bread. Or Loaf Guardian and Loaf Maiden. Also, Old English was very fond (in a Germanic sort of way) of concatenating words to find new meanings. Oh, the spellings changed along with the meanings, but there lies the roots.
Beowulf meant bee hunter. i.e., a bear. So, after 78 episodes of the History of English podcast, I cling to the way I've thought about super heroes all along. Super + Hero as applied to any era. Well, and possibly 7 diametrically opposite things, which I find the most pleasant way to think about things. But I digress.
One of my weaknesses (like kryptonite) is buying books that talk about how modern superhero shows are one of the inheritors of mythology and folklore. That we can, for example, look at the Flash, and see Mercury (or Lugalbanda). Look at Supergirl and see a solar deity on madcap adventures against lightning wielding foes or Crocodile men or… Land Sharks. It's always seemed to me the obverse is true then.
Lugalbanda is a super hero. Possibly not Ninurta, since technically he was a full god (oh, wait, Thor). That's the message I take from "Tales of Superhuman powers – 55 Traditional Stores from Around the World" which categorizes stories from ancient religions and folktales by how they would be grouped by modern comic superpowers. I'd reference other books, but I tend to buy them. Read them. Sell them. So, moving on...
Now by the simplest of rubrics, Buffy is a super hero in that she meets Merriam Webster's criteria of "a fictional character who has amazing powers (such as the ability to fly)" or "a very heroic person."
However, Noah Webster, while no "toad in the service of sans-cullottism" isn't really germane to this discussion. Except possibly to how my spellchecker corrects germane.
In any case, I'm thinking of a slightly different chain of descent. Because Gilgamesh and Lugalbanda and maybe Ninurta lack a key ingredient in what I was thinking about in the post that started this thought branch.
Most of the heroes I've referenced, super heroic or not, aren't women. (okay, yes, current Thor is a woman and sometimes Loki is a woman and, you know what, let's get out of the parenthetical and back to Buffy).
Now the origin of Buffy as a story has oft been told. So no loss to tell again. Of how Joss Whedon (no blind Homer d'oh) thought of that little blond woman who goes so foolish into the alley and is not killed by the shadowy monster that dwells therein, but instead emerges triumphant. It wasn't foolishness. It was her destiny. Also, throw destiny off the tower. A negation the idea of the inevitable fall. Rather than the negative space of a death, a positive space of a woman walking back out of the alley. Of empowering other women to take up their strength.
Martha Wayne knew baritsu and beat her attacker with her pearls. Martha Kent was changed by that Kryptonite into… oh wait, those fictional characters didn't have extra ordinary powers. Moving on.
BtVS mined that pitch tar pit of pain that was high school (unless high school was good for you, in which case congratulations) long after the pain had faded for the writers, but the memory remained. Turned fears into demons (Literal demons? Metaphoric demons. Sometimes silly simile demons) to be slain by the Slayer. High school into college. Into post college.
Funny, how I'm still angry that the narrative had Xander argue that Buffy's labor shouldn't earn a salary for putting her life on the line as part of some plot arc about Buffy working a minimum wage job. "Xander," (I want/ed to say) "Peter Parker staged and sold pictures of himself to earn cash."
But sigh, yes, the idea that heroes (super and otherwise) are not paid for their deeds is very much a part of the modern tradition. In part, I suppose because they operate in the shadows. Are vigilantes. Or are so absurdly rich that it makes no sense. Consider the central split of the most recent Captain America (if you've seen it. If not, then don't consider it). Perhaps also because the ways in which heroes of yore were rewarded for their daring do are not entirely apparent to the modern reader/writer. They were paid. Sometimes literally in gold. But mostly through a reputation economy where deeds meant that their needs were cared for based on reputation. Which in turn tied the hero back to the community they served.
Perhaps then the suggestion should not have been to pay Buffy, but to give her gifts in accordance with her social renown. Tumblr and Instagram equating to room and board. Oh, wait, BtVS predates such things. Well, not LJ. Smiles and pats LJ.
BtVS is a deeply modern story, but represents a moment in the modern age. Its context is not as the end of the heroic tradition, but as a part of the ongoing stream.
BtVS comes out of a movie tradition of the first flirty girl going into the alley and dying. A final girl living. Older stories (caveating to the ones I've read) tend to kill… more generally. Witness the mead hall into which Grendel creeps. No women die because there's only one woman in the story. I'm guessing she slept somewhere else. Possibly a cottage, and possibly prayed for some variation of Odin, Thor, and Loki (Freyja?) for help.
There's been a lot of electronic trees slain on this site (springing again for new growth) on the topic of the hero's journey. How each season, Buffy went through some variation of it. How the entire arc of the show went through that same Call + Journey to Underworld + Return with Boon.
There's also been some discussion of the woman's hero journey. That journey at least in the early modern period tended to focus on romantic love. Girl meets boy + Misunderstanding + Girl's romantic (cough economic) future ensured through marriage. Of course, with so many stories about young women without mothers, I sometimes thought as I went through my degree that the real arc was: Girl meets boy + Misunderstanding + Economic future ensured + Give Birth / Die tragically; begin the story again.
That is part of what makes Austen's opening to Northanger Abbey with the parents who didn't die so funny. It was the early 1800s. Novels were newish things, and already the trope was old. Plus, Austen = funny. Anyway, storytelling wasn't new. New prose style. Storytelling goes on.
Buffy laid not entirely new claim to the other narrative. In the end of season 7, her cookie dough wasn't done baking. She was still a young woman for all she'd been through. She didn't know who she wanted to end up with and her economic / emotional well being was tied to figuring herself out. Writing this I wanted to make this present tense, but we are talking twelve years past.
BtVS was about building community.
It always had Scoobies, and the ultimate end of that show was about sharing power. Not a single Slayer's strength, but all potential girls sharing in that power. The Watchers with the top down imposition of authority were blown away like ashen chaff. In the end, it wasn't so different in narrative flow that any other heroic group deciding they knew what needed to be done.
There's a hole where Sunnydale used to be. Twelve years echoing.
It was also in the midst of giving, giving, giving (The definition of a heroic act? The expectation of women's labor?) that we got our story. About a girl defining what woman she wanted to be. Cheerleader? Slayer? Buffy? Still baking.
The world view of a super hero, it's always seemed to me, is to be for Justice with a capital J. To fight for the right things. Though how those things are defined vary with the writer. The dreamer. The Dark Knights Returns comic's version of Superman versus the Superman fighting slum lords in the 1930s.
Buffy freed of high school horror and post-college Gen X malaise smiles at not being the one to decide where they are going. Or smiles to see the hole of the town that once trapped her. Or sunlight where the First Dark was brewing. Or… it was a such a wonderful and enigmatic moment. A hero raised from a well. There will be/were surely further challenges for Buffy. Perhaps her cookie dough will never be truly "done" baking. There is no done. Not really.
So, now… Liv of iZombie is caught in the post college slump of feeling (well being) dead inside. Supergirl is caught in a job that only sounds low prestige, but does deny the fullness of her potential. They are positioned as Millennial stories, but I'd like to use that term in the greater sense. Millennial as in occurring throughout the millennium. Women bound in narratives that both grant them power and try to define them, and what they can do. I see traces Buffy in them. The monster of the week. The search for meaning. Supergirl's anger at the loss of her world, but the societal constraint to smile. Liv stuck in a job/life not of her choosing.
Now my core argument, that I want more stories with strong women centric stories remains. I still don't know that I've said all that much to place Buffy or her world view into any super heroic context. Beyond to argue that I see the term so broadly that's it's difficult to make any sort of argument.
But the other day, we were having an afternoon get-together at our house. There were some tiny humans who came with their parents. Finally old enough for me to pull out Justice League and say, "This is the episode where Wonder Woman goes to a wedding and throws a tank. Do you want to watch it?" and got a very happy response. I think about when those children will be old enough to watch Buffy. Still I'd say a decade beyond them now. Not that children aren't given some pretty horrifying tales all told, but BtVS recontextualized so much of those narrative into becoming an adult. Took from the past to provide meaning. Lends to future narratives where heroes quip and suffer in attractive community. Define themselves a little further down the road.
The space where the past lies is not empty, but the road runs the other way. Hard to say when those children are old enough for BtVS, how they will contextualize it in whatever storytelling landscape awaits.
But in that eternal now moment of an essay, I'm smiling to think about it.
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