On GenreDick Hyacinth, he of the awesome Dick Hates Your Blog blog, posted some musings on the use of “shocking plot development” as currency, which slid pleasingly into a discussion of genre. In this discussion he makes the audacious claim that the superhero category isn’t a genre, it’s an occupational grouping that may be part of a number of genres. Well, let’s let Dick speak:
But, despite this movement across genres, I don't think that superheroes really constitutes its own genre. It's more like an occupational setting. A television show set in a newsroom could be in the mystery, comedy, or soap opera genre. I think that's basically the case with superheroes, which works pretty well in unexpected genres like comedy.
There’s a lot of other really good stuff in the post, both on the topic of the recently increasing tendency to skew superhero writing to other genre styles, and on satisfaction of audience expectations. But that money shot quote above really was a great observation, even if its conclusion is incorrect. In order to see why I think he’s wrong we have to figure out what a genre is.
Dividing stuff into genres or “kinds” really has only two rules. Rule one: the genres must be distinguishable (people must be, for the most part, able to see something a say “that belongs to the ______ genre” – they’ll always be exceptions, but that’s the most important rule). Rule two: there must be reasonable utility to this grouping (this differences must be useful for the audience). There is no rule three. There is especially no rule three about genres themselves being coherent with each other, and being defined by the same sets of rules with just differing parameters.
It’s probably easiest to use the strongest genres to make this point, and by strongest, I mean by the criteria above – the most clearly defined and useful, which also tend to be the most inclusive. The genre of horror movies, about the strongest genre I can think of, is a good example. If something could be considered a family drama or a horror movie, it’s going to be considered a horror movie… horror usually wins any head to head. (I’ll talk about the Alien counter example in a minute). Horror movies are defined by a clear set of narrative values, mostly a rule set of how things happen, and the presence of a plot driven by a threat of death to the protagonist(s) (to use Todd Alcott terminology: what does the protagonist want? To stay alive). Another way to say this is that a movie is a horror movie because it “behaves” like a horror movie.
Compare this to Science fiction. sci fi is defined by a set of tropes (terrible word for this discussion except as it helps us isolate defining elements that we can then usefully categorize) that are a grab bag of elements (you can take some and leave others): space, spaceships, aliens, future technology, evolved or degenerated societies, etc., but you need signifiers – if you don’t have space or spaceships or aliens, you better have enough future technology and an odd enough society to make it clear that it’s sci fi. The defining characteristic here is the presence of things that don’t exist, but might one day exist in our world as understood scientifically (i.e. without the need to appeal to magic or the supernatural). Another way to say this is that a movie is a sci fi movie because it “has stuff” like a sci fi movie.
This illustrates the first big problem encountered when trying to define genres – they are not defined by using rules that are coherent with each other, which also means they are not mutually exclusive. The movie Alien has all the defining characteristics of a horror movie and of a science fiction movie. So what is it? I’d argue that it is a sci fi movie because of the litmus test to end all litmus tests – that’s where they put it in Blockbuster, i.e. that’s how the mass audience perceives it. In this case the sci fi “trappings” trump the horror plot.
This recalls the always fun argument over Star Wars. The movie “behaves” like a fantasy, therefore it must be a fantasy say the cognoscenti. This is total bullshit, however, since the people in the move shoot stuff in space and have laser swords and shit. Q.E.D., bitches. This is because that is how the public perceives it, which is in turn because this is the most useful distinction to the mass audience.
Let’s talk TV for a second, to get into a direct example of non coherent rules. The sit-com is a genre. It doesn’t matter if it takes place in a doctors office, a law firm, a hospital, an office building, a bunch of unaffordable apartments, the Lincoln White House, a spaceship, or some dude named Herman’s head. Almost no one would say “I like sitcoms, but I specifically don’t like medical sitcoms.” They might say “I don’t like Scrubs,” but it would likely be that that don’t like the modern frenetic “cutaway” type comedy, not because they don’t like “medical sitcoms,” and thus the “medical sitcom” is not a genre. But “medical drama” is a genre, because people make that distinction, and make decisions based on it. CSI and Law and Order are very different shows (one could be subclassified as a science detective show with law enforcement trappings, the other a hybrid cop and legal drama/detective show) but both are considered in the same genre (the law enforcement procedural drama), even though CSI is closer to House in form and execution than Law and Order.
That brings us to superheroes. The only reason there is no superhero category in Blockbuster is that there aren’t enough movies (yet) to justify the shelf space. People recognize the superhero genre, thus it exists. It just so happens this genre is defined occupationally, or, alternately, through its outward trappings - colorful suits, powers, and externalized conflict. It’s OK. Don’t worry. It’s just a label. We can still get together on Friday nights and talk about thematic concerns such as preoccupation with the ethics of power.
This brings up the question of audience. I have been skewing my results to that of the mass audience and, as we well know, the mass audience doesn’t read comics. So, like the sci-fi/fantasy community does, we can sub-genrefy all we like. Since only people weirdly interested in analyzing narrative seem to read comics, we can compartmentalize in the air like we just don't care. Superhero noir comics. Event-driven superhero comics. Superhero spy comics. Superhero space opera comics. Superhero-sploitation comics (wait, that would be all of them).
Genres are a mess – they are stitched together Frankenstein’s monster-like constructs because their strength is judged not by how smoothly we can describe them, but how readily people can go “oh, it’s that kind thing… I hate that… you love that stuff, so go enjoy it and leave me alone.” Superheroes definitely constitute a genre, but are one defined in such a way to allow for lots of juicy subgenrefication that we can discuss till we start to cry about how we’ve squandered our miserable lives.