This post is a total geek-out; non-geeky readers will want to scroll on past this one. Later today, I’ll also post this week’s baby blogging (sorry for being late on it!).
Paraphrasing Katie Schwarz: No definition will ever work perfectly, because “superhero” isn’t a concrete, distinct category but an archetype. One can use a definition to determine if a character is nearer or further from the archetype, but never to find a definitive line, with supers on one side and everyone else on the other. That line doesn’t exist.
To me, a good definition has to unambiguously include the most iconic superheroes; a definition that excludes Superman, Batman, Robin or Wonder Woman is no good. Additionally, characters that virtually no one would consider superheroes – Mr. Spock, Jessica Fletcher, Garp, Daddy Warbucks, etc. – should be clearly excluded by a good definition.
A superhero is a protagonist (or part of a group of protagonists) possessed of some characteristic(s) not attainable through even extraordinary effort by the ordinary members of his or her narrative baseline social milieu, who uses those characteristics to defend that social milieu’s health and existence.
I think this is clearly wrong. First, Robert’s definition grossly expands the conception of which characters are superheroes. The detective character Adrian Monk is a superhero by this definition. So is Jessica Fletcher from Murder She Wrote. So is Jesus. So, arguably, is Bill Gates.
Secondly, Robert’s definition excludes even many characters who virtually all readers will identify as superheros. For instance, the excellent superhero comic Astro City contains dozens of characters who both the creators and experienced superhero readers would identify as superheroes – they fight crime, in costumes, using superpowers and special identities. But most of those characters aren’t protagonists, or part of a protagonist group. So I’d argue that the “protagonist” part of Robert’s definition cannot stand, because it excludes obviously superhero characters.
Similarly, superheroes without extraordinary abilities are excluded. The original “Nite Owl” from Watchmen, for example, wore a costume and mask, was part of an association of superheroes, and fought crime – but he didn’t have any special abilities, he was just pretty good in a fight.
Here’s my definition, which is based on discussions on Usenet many years ago (and so incorporates many people’s thoughts):
To be a superhero, a character must fight for the good of society ((That bit is stuck in mainly to exclude the supervillains.)), and possess at least 4 of the following 5 traits…
1. The character has a second identity, the “super” identity; assuming this identity sets the character apart from ordinary society. This second identity is so distinct that another person can conceivably adopt it, becoming “The New Robin” or whatnot. ((Titles and prefixes (“Captain Kirk”) are not considered second identities in this sense.))
2. The character has superhuman abilities. This includes “powerless” characters, if they are frequently shown accomplishing extraordinary or virtually impossible feats, such as Batman’s acrobatic skills.
3. The character has an extraordinary (not merely distinctive) appearance or costume, for the society the character lives in.
4. The character is dressed or presented in a manner which emphasizes an extraordinarily powerful and/or well-defined musculature, and/or to emphasize their secondary sex characteristics.
5. The character inhabits a continuity/shared system of stories in which most of the protagonists fit the above criteria. ((This point is swiped from Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology, by Richard Reynolds.))
A character that fights for the good of society, but possesses only one of these traits, isn’t a superhero at all. So Jessica Fletcher, Adrian Monk, Sherlock Holmes, and the rest of the super-smart detectives aren’t superheroes by this definition. Neither is Daddy Warbucks, nor Bill Gates.
A character that fights for good and possesses two or three of these characteristics isn’t a superhero, but is getting closer to the archetype. Tarzan, The Bionic Woman, and Buffy are two examples of such characters. (This goes against my previous claim that Buffy is a superhero, but that’s fine with me: Buffy is pretty clearly a borderline case.) James Bond and Jesus would also fit into the “borderline, but not really superheroes” category.
A character that fights for good and has four or five of these traits is unambiguously a superhero. Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman and Spiderman are clearly superheroes, as are all those background crimefighters flying around Astro City.