Sunday! (The Superhero Origins That Aren’t)

I’ve been listening to classic audiobooks from Librivox. A few weeks back I listened to The Gladiator, by Philip Wylie. Right now I am presently one-third the way through The Count of Monte Cristo.

What these stories have in common is being the equivalent of superhero or supervillain stories, but simply not following it to that conclusion. (Minor spoilers, but nothing I didn’t know prior to starting each book.)

The Gladiator is widely reported as a predecessor to Superman, and it’s not hard to see the connections. It’s the story of Hugo Danner, who was given superpowers in utero and was super strong, super fast, and all of that. Like young Clark Kent, he was told to keep his powers incognito. For a superhero origin, it’s pretty modern in its sensibilities. Which is to say, it’s grim and depressing. He is utterly alone in the world and has enormous difficulty relating to other people. When he graduates high school, he immediately leaves Colorado for like in New York. Tragedy strikes while he’s there and he accidentally kills someone. This is where the superhero part would start… except it doesn’t. He saves a few people, but mostly just looks to find his place in a world where he just doesn’t fit, and just doesn’t have a place for him. The closest thing he finds is the battlefield in World War I. But short of a costume and S-symbol, what can you even do with superpowers?

The Count of Monte Cristo is closer to a supervillain story, albeit a somewhat sympathetic one. Edmund Dante is wrongly convicted for treason and ends up in prison. While there he makes the acquaintance of someone else, who gives him a good liberal arts education and upon his exit tells him where he can find lots of money. Upon release, his mission is to settle scores. Reward those who helped him, and seek revenge on those who wronged him. It’s a whopping 50-hours long (once completed, this will be the second longest audiobook I’ve consumed, after Atlas Shrugged) and I’m only about 10-hours into it. Dante is already mixed in with the criminal underworld, and really just has scheming villain written all over him. Except that he wears no supervillain armor. Also, he is the protagonist.

So what are you watching/reading/etc?


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17 thoughts on “Sunday! (The Superhero Origins That Aren’t)

  1. Without delving too far into religion, I find that most mature superhero stories (fsmo “mature”) are attempts to rewrite Rabbi Kushner’s “Why Bad Things Happen To Good People” with a modern sensibility.

    They can’t resolve the inconsistent triad of God being Omnibenevolent, God being Omnipotent, and Evil Existing so they explore how Omnipotence Sucks.

    Imagine having ultimate power! Now imagine how everything still sucks no matter how many hot dogs you make that are so big that you can’t eat them!

    And so, with the invention of an omnipotent being who, despite his best efforts, still ain’t anywhere near omnipotent enough, we resolve the problem of evil.

    Unfortunately, that leaves us stuck with deities who resolve problems by hitting them hard enough.

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    • The better way of resolving that particular paradox is to understand why supervillains are better than superheroes… (Which is NOT to say that all evil is good, but that trying to make a better world is a lot better than smacking down the people trying to fix shit).

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    • Most things from that period, you’re better off reading the abridged versions. (Everything Victor Hugo, for example).

      A lot were published as newspaper serials, which meant they were literally paid by the word and paid to stretch it out as long as possible.

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      • For the most part, I could not disagree more. Les Miserables and the Musketeer books are amazing works of art, and I don’t want to read only the parts some third-party considered important. But Monte Cristo is twice the size of The Three Musketeers or Twenty Years After and sprawls so badly, that I’ll never read it unabridged again.

        Also, William Goldman’s Good Parts Version of The Princess Bride is an improvement on the original Morgenstern.

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        • The hunchback of notre dame spends 40 pages before you even see the main character, just talking about the architecture of Notre Dame (which, while important, might be a teensy bit more interesting if interspersed between bits about actual characters).

          The art of novels has improved since these were written.

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          • Is it just a French thing, though? Or maybe a Franco-Russian thing? English novels of the same era are comparably crisp, right? American* ones even more so?- despite American literary conventions being almost entirely influenced by the newspaper trade.

            *except for that one guy who dicked around on innumerable pages with Tom Clancyish technobabble about whaling

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            • I think the newspaper trade improved things. You could meander a lot, but you still needed to have SOME PLOT (kinda like Marmalade Boy the TV show).

              When people didn’t have many books, and you were pretty much assured that people would keep slogging through however many pages of “not plot”… Well, let’s just say, they didn’t have editors either.

              Copy editors job is to make sure that you keep the readers’ attention.

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      • Lily of the Valley, perhaps the best of King of Serials Balzac, includes a scene in which the protagonist enters a room looking for someone, and the room is painstakingly described for two pages. Well, “someone” wasn’t there, so he walks out of the room and keeps searching for her somewhere else.

        Serials like Balzac’s the Human Comedy, or Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles, are true soap operas. For decades, we follow the stories of the same characters in different threads (novels) mixing and matching them from protagonists to barely part of the escenerie and back to front and center, without end.

        And, being paid by the word, or the page, they padded them with endless description. No need to imagine plot if I can instead describe an empty room.

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  2. The Scarlet Pimpernel is usually considered the ur-literary Super Hero. A aristocratic dandy who was really a suave adventurer saving nobles from those dreaded French Revolutionaries. It would be like a Batman who only really cared about Gotham’s upper crust.

    The Gladiator did not have to go in the way of a superhero story. It was science fiction and Philip Wylie might have wanted to go in a more dystopian and literary way. Some wikipedia searching reveals that Hollywood turned the Gladiator into a movie in 1938 but decided to make it a zero into hero college football movie rather than do a normal adaptation.

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