Sunday, July 18, 2010

Superheroes vs. Fairy Tales

Sometimes I wonder if superheroes are our generations contribution to, or extension of, the fairy tale genre. They have some basic things in common-the possibility of the supernatural, the battle between good and evil. Although, as far as the supernatural goes, superheroes often have scientific explanations as to how they got their powers.
But that got me thinking about the differences and similarities between superheroes and fairy tales. One thing I find interesting about the heroes is that there are so many different versions, like fairy tales. Even among the comics themselves, there are so many issues, and different authors who keep creating tales for the heroes, not to mention the various tv shows and movies that have been so popular. This is most interesting to me because there is still a definite "authentic source" for them, yet that doesn't stop people from creating their own versions. With fairy tales, even our "authentic" sources are really just well-known ones but not at all authentic. The Grimms just collected (and altered) tales they heard. Even "The Little Mermaid," whose plot is attributed to Hans Christian Andersen, contains basically the same plot as Friedrich de la Motte Fouque's "Undine," which came out 26 years before Andersen's tale, in 1811.

It's normal for books to be made into movies, but superheroes have a whole host of media attributed to each of them, much more so than other popular book characters.

But one of the main differences between superheroes and fairy tales is that superhero stories revolve around the character, and mainly, their power. Fairy tales revolve around plot. Any story about an underprivileged girl who rises out of her situation is a Cinderella story, and romance where someone is loved by someone else who is "out of their league" is a Beauty and the Beast story. The traditional fairy tale characters are pretty vague, and all heroines are pretty much the same, just as all villains and parents tend to fit the same profiles from story to story. So modern versions of fairy tales explore and deepen the characters while keeping the plot the same, and versions of superhero stories keep the characters the same while adding new plot elements.

Yet both of these genres have the element of longevity. Fairy tales have been around as long as humans have, and some of the same ones we love today were loved-though in different forms-hundreds and thousands of years ago. Superheroes are much newer, but several are household names even years after they first came out, and I really don't expect to see Superman or Batman go out of popularity anytime soon. Who knows-in the future they may be categorized with classical fairy tales the way several children's books of the Victorian period are (like Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland).

There are two little-known Grimm fairy tales called "The Six Servants" and "Six Soldiers of Fortune." Each of the named characters possess an unusual ability-one who can hear any sound from any distance, one who basically has laser vision, one whose body feels the inverse of the actual temperature, a tall man who can continue to stretch as as high as a mountain, one who can see anything in the world, one with perfect aim, a fast runner, one who creates frosts, a strong man...etc. Each of the men is able to use their gift to solve problems or save the lives of the rest of the group. When I first read these, I was all excited that I had discovered the forerunner of X-Men: a group of people with unique abilities who work together creatively to achieve their goals. Even some of the powers are the same ones we see in modern superheroes-laser vision is Cyclops, the fast runner is Pietro, the frost man would be Iceman...

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