I have just finished up at the Just Men In Tights: Superheroes Conference. It’s been a very stimulating weekend and just what I needed to get my head back into myth, popular culture and the apocalypse.
Lots of interesting talks on everything from traditional superheroes such as Superman and Batman to readings of Queer as Folk. The good think for me has been that it has given me lots of references to follow up and even some new shows to look at. A number of sessions on the Superman prequel Smallville have piqued my interest.
In the opening keynote by Scott Bukatman talked about the superhero as characterised by four performative qualities: visual, kinetic, improvisational and linguistic. His connection to the everyday was an interesting one, like musical stars before them – he showed the singing in the rain scene from Singing in the Rain – the superhero makes improvisational use of everyday props and his heroics are embodied in his expressive choreography. Bukatman said that the Superhero improvises survival strategies using everyday objects: a form of “riffing off the objects of the world”.
The linguistic performance in the superhero genre was not immediately obvious but many superheros are brought to life in their slogans (“This is a job for superman..”.“is it a bird is it a plane”etc:) “an egotistical, flamboyant means of writing himself onto the world”. He made the interesting point that it is in this area that Buffy excels and that it is the first time that the linguistic is choreographed so closely with the kinesthetic since the days of musical.
Peter Coogan from Fontabonne University in St Louis created discussion with his definition of the Superhero:
Su.per.he.ro (soo’per hîr’o) n., pl. -roes. 1. A heroic character with a selfless, pro-social mission; who possesses superpowers, advanced technology, or highly developed physical and/or mental skills; who has a superidentity and iconic costume, which typically express his biography or character, powers, and origin (transformation from ordinary person to superhero); and is generically distinct, i.e. can be distinguished from characters of related genres (fantasy, science fiction, detective, etc.) by a preponderance of generic conventions. Typically superheroes have dual identities, the ordinary one of which is kept secret. -superheroic, adj. Also super hero, super-hero (Trademark).
Coogan maintained against some objections that Buffy for instance doesn’t fit the definition because she doesn’t have the dual/secret identity or iconic costume. He places her in the horror vampire tradition but admits the show draws heavily on the Superhero genre. He’s probably right in strict genre terms but one of the interesting things about contemporary practice that became very clear during the conference was that most examples of the current superhero are definitely hybrid constructions.
More on hybridity and the “neo-baroque” tomorrow.