Long Island Recollections: What Shakespeare Teaches us of Superheroes.

This weekend I had a great conversation with my good friend Ellis who is a tremendous fan of the show Smallville, which is about Superman as a teenager. We got to talking about the publication histories of major characters, the intents of the characters’ creators, and the effect that time had had on the development of the depth and significance of great characters such as Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man. I mentioned that I believe there are probably a finite number of basic archetypal characters from which all superheroes are derived. Ellis pointed out that these three in particular represented three basic archetypes: Superman, the hero who is born with super powers; Batman, the hero who has no super powers; and Spider-Man, the hero who suddenly gets super powers at some point in his life. Later that weekend, I remembered a line from Shakespeare‘s Twelfth Night.

“…some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

Back in the day, William Shakespeare keenly observed that among heroes, some such as Superman are born great, some such as Batman and Iron Man achieve their own greatness, and some such as Spider-Man and the Hulk have greatness literally thrust upon them.

More on this later…

The 25 Most Influential People in Comic Book Movies: #5 Michael E. Uslan

Michael E. Uslan is the undisputed father of the modern Batman film. A comics lore legend, he was the first professor to teach a course on “comic book folklore” at an accredited university (his alma mater Indiana University.) He famously convinced the Dean of the school to allow his course after equating the Dean’s recollection of the story of Moses with the story of Superman. Since 1979, he and co-founder of Batfilm Productions #8 Benjamin Melniker have owned the feature motion picture rights to the DC Comics Batman franchise. Uslan has shared production credits on every one of Melniker’s comic book screen works, including every Batman film since 1989. He was the first to pitch the idea of a darker Batman, as opposed to the campy 1960s TV Batman, to producers, but was turned down repeatedly. His persistence, however, eventually led to the production of Tim Burton’s 1989 classic, and he has remained the Batman authority since then. In addition, he was executive producer of 2008’s direct to video Turok: Son of Stone, based on the Dell, Gold Key and Valiant Comics hero. He is set to produce Billy Batson and the Legend of Shazam, based on the original DC Comics Captain Marvel. With #11 Sam Raimi, he will be producing a film adaptation of The Shadow, a long time pet project of Raimi’s.

Influence Meter: +++++++++

The 25 Most Influential People in Comic Book Movies: #9 Bryan Singer

Bryan SingerPrior to signing on to direct X-Men, Bryan Singer considered comics to be “low level literature.”  He was not a fan of comics and was unfamiliar with the X-Men characters. Singer’s friend, Tom DeSanto, a huge comic book enthusiast, eventually persuaded Singer to watch every episode of the X-Men animated series and read several comics.  Singer was hooked. His new found enthusiasm for comics coupled with The Usual Suspects tucked away in his back pocket made him a prime choice for 20th Century Fox and producers #16 Lauren Shuler Donner, Avi Arad, and Stan Lee.  The result was the groundbreaking X-Men, which he directed and for which he co-wrote the story, followed by 2003’s smash hit X2, which he directed and for which he wrote the story and served as executive producer.  In 2004, amidst difficulties finalizing a deal for Singer to direct X-Men 3, he was hired by Warner Brothers to direct, produce, and co-write the story for a new Superman film, Superman Returns, released in 2006. Again, Singer was unfamiliar with the comics, but he identified with the character and loved Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman.  His next comic book film will be Superman: Man of Steel, which he will produce and for which he will write the story.  News suggests that Singer will be directing as well, but there has been some evidence to the contrary.  The sequel is set to be released in June of 2009.

Influence Meter: ++++++

The Green Lantern and the Taxonomy of Emotion

I’m no psychologist, but . . .  

     On the recommendation of a guy at my local comic book store, I picked up the trade paperback “Green Lantern: Rebirth.” I don’t usually go in for DC stuff, but I thought I’d check this one out, and I liked it. But it got me on this train of thought:
     The Power Rings of the Green Lantern Corps are fueled by willpower.  Early on in Green Lantern‘s publication history, writers specifically associated the attribute of willpower to the color green.  A contrary force, the yellow energy emanating from the rings of villains such as Sinestro and the Sinestro Corps, has been associated with fear.  Until recently in publication history, green Power Rings were ineffective against all things yellow.
     So here’s what I got to thinking: We think of the color green as a combination of the colors yellow and blue.  In the DC Universe, particularly in the Green Lantern context, green=willpower and yellow=fear.  What would happen if you had a power ring that emanated a particularly yellowish shade of green, or if you tried to use a green ring against a greenish-yellow threat?  If there are shades of color in the DC Universe as there are shades of color in reality, then are there not also analogous shades of psychological states.  Is there room in the DC Universe for a spectrum of Power Ring colors?  If there are green and yellow, how do we differentiate the two, and how do we define the two?  And if we can define either color, we should be also able to define the analogous mental state for that color, shouldn’t we?  If there is a spectrum of green (which may overlap the spectrum of yellow) then are there overlapping spectrums of “willpower” and “fear”?
     And what about blue?  It seems reasonable to propose that if there is “green energy” then there should be “yellow energy” (as we have seen) and also “blue energy.”  Why not energies, and therefore power rings, in all the colors of the visible spectrum?  And what attributes do these energies have?  Perhaps, as yellow and blue are components of green, so are the mental states of the yellow and blue power rings components of “willpower.”  If that is the case, then what can be added to fear to make willpower?
     It turns out that Green Lantern writers have addressed some of these issues in the last few years since the publication of “Rebirth.”  In this story arc, Superman and Batman are compared to each other, and although they are both heroes, Superman is specifically associated with hope while Batman is associated with fear.  They are frequently portrayed as opposite sides of the same coin in this way.  If Batman and Superman are opposing identities on the same team, can we use this example to imagine an opposite of yellow that could also be defined as a component of green?  In other words, what about a blue Power Ring fueled by hope?

     Does it make sense to say that hope and fear are components of willpower?

     One may consider that hope tempered by fear is courage, and that fear combined with hope is caution.  It is not, I suspect, unreasonable to suppose that courage and caution are two concepts that are even more akin to willpower than hope and fear.  A spectrum becomes plausible: hope to courage to will to caution to fear.  Will is deliberate, whereas fear and hope can and frequently are impulsive responses to a given situation. 
     As it turns out, Green Lantern writers have associated other colors with other emotions as well.  Red is rage, orange is avarice, indigo is compassion, and violet is love.  These being the case, I wonder if “rage” is the best word to characterize the nature of the red Power Rings.  If red and yellow are components of orange, then are rage and fear components of avarice?  If red and blue are components of violet, then are rage and hope components of love?  It seems that it would be more appropriate to substitute “passion” or “aggression” for “rage” in this case.  Arguably, fear mixed with a sense of aggression will result in selfish, greedy behavior.  Hope combined with passion can certainly be thought of as love.  But the answer is not clear, and I wonder about the true nature of anger.  How are rage, passion and aggression distinct from the attributes of the other colors, and from the seemingly more inclusive concept of “anger”? 
     Some preliminary research has led me to the idea that anger can be described on a field with three axes.  One axis is a measure of intensity or activity, with passive behavior being on the low end and aggressive behavior at the other extreme.  Another axis is a measure of motivation, with proactive/compulsive behavior at one extreme and reactive/impulsive behavior at the other.  The third axis measures the status of the cause of the anger relative to the individual feeling the emotion, i.e. you may be angry at a power that you perceive to be greater or lesser than yourself.  The result is eight mental states that can all be thought of as forms of “anger.” 

We may call passive reactive/impulsive anger directed toward a perceived greater power “frustration.”
We may call passive reactive/impulsive anger directed toward a perceived lesser power “annoyance.”
We may call aggressive reactive/impulsive anger directed toward a perceived greater power “rage.”
We may call aggressive reactive/impulsive anger directed toward a perceived lesser power “wrath.”
We may call passive proactive/compulsive anger directed toward a perceived greater power “resentment.”
We may call passive proactive/compulsive anger directed toward a perceived lesser power “contempt.”
We may call aggressive proactive/compulsive anger directed toward a perceived greater power “vengefulness.”
We may call aggressive proactive/compulsive anger directed toward a perceived lesser power “malevolence.”

We may also think of the last four – resentment, contempt, vengefulness, and malevolence – as forms of hatred. 

More on this later… 

My Top 40 Comic Book (or Strip) Movies

1.        Annie*                         1982
2.        American Splendor**†           2003
3.        The Dark Knight¨               2008
4.        Superman¨                      1978
5.        Batman¨                       1989
6.        A History of Violence‡◊        2005
7.        Batman Begins¨                2005
8.        300†                           2007
9.        Dick Tracy*                    1990
10.       V for Vendetta◊                2005
11.       Batman Returns¨               1992
12.       Road to Perdition‡             2002
13.       X-Men©                        2000
14.       Iron Man©                     2008
15.       Spider-Man 2©                 2004
16.       Spider-Man©                   2002
17.       Men in Black§                 1997
18.       Hellboy†                       2004
19.       Sin City†                      2005
20.       Constantine◊                   2005
21.       X2: X-Men United©             2003
22.       From Hellª                    2001
23.       Mystery Men†                   1999
24.       Timecop†                       1994
25.       Over the Hedge‡‡               2006
26.       Superman Returns¨             2006
27.       The Incredible Hulk©          2008
28.       Daredevil©                    2003
29.       Wanted††                       2008
30.       X-Men: The Last Stand©        2006
31.       Hulk©                         2003
32.	 The Mask†                      1994
33.       Fantastic Four©               2005
34.       Hellboy II: The Golden Army†   2008
35.       Blade©                        1998
36.       Batman Forever¨               1995
37.       Men in Black II§              2002
38.       Blade: Trinity©               2004
39.       Howard the Duck©              1986
40.       Elektra©                      2005
*  Chicago Tribune Syndicate
** Self-Published
†  Dark Horse
‡  Paradox Press (DC)
◊  Vertigo (DC)
¨  DC Comics
©  Marvel Comics 
§  Aircel/Malibu/Marvel
ª  Top Shelf Productions
†† Top Cow
‡‡ United Media Comics
Last revised and updated: July 19, 2008