Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
zette@cableone.net

 

Potential in Spandex

By Rob St. Martin
2005,
Rob St. Martin


Superheroes.

The word evokes images of spandex-clad, impossibly muscular men and scantily-clad, impossibly endowed women, fighting cataclysmic battles punctuated with witty banter and melodramatic proclamations. The overwhelming majority of superheroic fiction, it seems, revolves around adolescent power fantasies.  Or at the very least, that's how the majority of the public views superheroes.

The best of superheroic fiction explores themes of truth, justice, loyalty, love, honour, teamwork, and  responsibility.  It's a genre that encompasses an incredible wealth of story possibilities, drawing from a wide array of other genres.  It's a genre that deserves its own place in speculative fiction.

But what is that place?                                                                                               

Some argue that superheroic fiction rightfully lies purely in fantasy.  The characters have unbelievable, miraculous powers.  They fight against tyranny, injustice, in battles that seem purely dualistic -- Good versus Evil.  No shades of grey, simply black and white, right and wrong, the ultimate extremes of the spectrum of morality, as most fantasy seems to embrace.

While it's certainly true that superheroic fiction takes elements from fantasy, simply calling it fantasy denies the science fiction aspect to superheroes:  aliens marooned on our planet; mutations caused by genetic abnormalities or accidental exposure to radiation or chemicals; robots, androids, cyborgs, and artificial intelligences;  spaceships and interstellar travellers wielding technologies far in advance of our own. All these trappings of science fiction, and more, can be found within the pages of superheroic fiction.

Nevertheless, it's equally inaccurate to call superheroic fiction 'science fiction.'  Creatures from mythology inhabit the pages of superheroic fiction, side-by-side with aliens, robots, and spaceships.  Other possible fantasy aspects include: ancient, lost civilizations; gods, goddesses, and demi-gods; sorcerers and witches; dragons, unicorns,  and pegasi.

Equally, there are those who argue that superheroic fiction can rightfully be called the descendant of pulp crime fiction.  After all, in that tradition crafty detectives seek wrong-doers on a nightly basis, using tried and true methods of deductive reasoning, following the clues to the criminal's hidden lair.

The truth of the matter is that superheroic fiction derives its own particular genre separate from all these genres, and it includes science fiction and fantasy and pulp crime fiction, all rolled into one. Superheroic fiction, then, represents the purest form of speculative fiction.  In a science fiction story, you couldn't have a unicorn or a dragon without explaining it as a genetically engineered pseudo-being, or something similar.  Putting a robot into a fantasy story would have to be explained as a clockwork man or a golem brought to life by magic.  A detective in pure crime fiction wearing tights and a cape would have to be attending a costume party, or taking part in a theatrical performance.

But with superheroic fiction, you can have all these things together.  Mutants, aliens and interstellar cops team up with sorcerers, descendants from Atlantis, and quasi-mythical demigoddesses on a regular basis.  The overwhelming possibilities of the combination of the genres create an irresistible environment for speculative fiction.

That's what draws me, as a writer.  The potential to write anything you want, regardless of the trappings of genre.  And that potential allows a writer to look past the trappings -- past the Bam! Bif! Pow! -- and get to the heart of the matter.  You don't even have to put your characters in spandex, if you don't want to -- the genre contains plenty of individuals who resist the call of colourful costumes and dramatic masks.  The freedom to do anything at all forces me, as a writer, to look for what truly matters to the story, to find what the story is really about.

Truth.  Justice.  Responsibility.  Teamwork.  Loyalty.  Trust.  Love.

That's the true potential of superheroic fiction.