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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

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Joseph Campbell fans might think superheroes are popular because superheroes follow Campbell’s monomyth and so are parts of our collective subconscious.

I have my doubts.

A half-century after Campbell published The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the study of “cross-cultural regularities” in folktales and mythologies shifted to cognitive psychology and the search for “a set of conceptual mechanisms that is pan-cultural” and “essentially inevitable given innately specified cognitive biases” (Barrett and Nyhof). So members of different cultures produce similar stories not because they share similar minds, but because they share similar brains.

And those brains are made for superheroes. Here’s why …

Instead of mapping monomythic plot formulas, studies over the last two decades have focused on defining what kinds of ideas are most easily remembered and therefore more likely to be retold. Intuitive ones, ideas that meet our expectations about reality, are harder to remember than ones that violate them. Counter-intuitive ideas require more attention to mentally process and so make a longer lasting impression. Or they do up to a point. Too many counter-intuitive elements and remembering becomes harder again. So, as Justin Barrett and Melanie Nyhof conclude, a being who “will never die of natural causes and cannot be killed” is easier to recall than a being who “requires nourishment and external sources of energy in order to survive” and also easier to recall than a being who “can never die, has wings, is made of steel, experiences time backwards, lives underwater, and speaks Russian.”

In 1994, Pascal Boyer called the conceptual sweet spot the “minimal counterintuitive” or MCI, and a range of research has refined the definition. Ara Norenzayan and his co-authors found that Brothers Grimm tales with two to three counterintuitive elements received more hits on Google searches than Grimm tales with one or none and tales with more than three. Barrett looked at seventy-three folktales and found 79% included exactly one or two counter-intuitive elements. Joseph Stubbersfield and Jamshid Tehrani’s study of the contemporary “Bloody Mary” urban legend found that Internet versions averaged between two and two and a half MCI elements. Lauren Gonce and her co-authors also found that context matters, since counter-intuitive items presented on a list fare worse than intuitive ones (“singing bird” is easier to memorize than “flowering car”), and M. Afzal Upal defines that relevant context in terms of story coherence, showing that study participants recall a MCI element only if it makes sense of the events surrounding it.

Like Campbell’s monomyth, minimal counter-intuitiveness also describes superheroes. According to Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet, the prototypical character has inhuman powers, but those “powers are limited” and the individual is “human,” striking the optimal MCI balance. Stan Lee summarized Marvel’s formula in a 1970 radio interview even more precisely: “these are like ‘fairy tales’ for grown-ups, but they were to be completely realistic except for one element of a super power which the superhero possessed, that we would ask our reader to swallow somehow.”

Other comics superheroes tend to violate only one real-world expectation too: Flash moves inhumanly fast; Hawkgirl has wings; Plastic Man’s body is malleable. When a character has more than one counter-intuitive quality, those qualities tend to derive from a single, unifying concept. The bald-headed Professor X has the mental powers of telekinesis and telepathy. The Wasp shrinks to the size of a wasp, flies like a wasp, and stings like a wasp. Spider-Man has the proportional strength of a spider, climbs walls by adhering to vertical surfaces like a spider, and even has “spider senses”—an unrelated ability made to conform to the MCI conceit by adding “spider” as an adjective.

When a superhero violates MCI, it is most often through narrative evolution rather than original concept. Although Superman can fly, shoot lasers from his eyes, and even travel backward in time, Siegel and Shuster’s original had only advanced muscles. Similarly, Wolverine had no mutant healing powers when introduced in 1974, and Lee and Kirby didn’t add force fields to Invisible Girl’s abilities until Fantastic Four #22. Finally, while one character possessing multiple superpowers violates MCI, a team of superhumans does not. An immortal, winged, steel, time-reversing, water-breathing Russian-speaker is maximally counter-intuitive, but a comic book that includes Superman, Angel, Colossus (who also speaks Russian), Merlin, and Aquaman might merely be “bizarre” (a category Barrett and Nyof distinguish from MCI).

Not only does the superhero character type demonstrate MCI, so does the overall world and story contexts. Although superheroes violate a range of natural laws, Joseph Witek still defines superhero stories as naturalistic because the “depicted worlds are like our own, or like our own world would be if specific elements, such as magic or superpowers, were to be added or removed.” The cohesive nature of superhero stories would also place them in Upal’s “Coherent-Counterintuitive” category because the MCI superpower “is causally relevant because it could allow a reader to make sense of the events to follow.” A traditional superhero story does not simply include a character with a superpower, but features the superpower as the means for resolving the central conflict. Comics writer Dennis O’Neil argues:

“A writer fails the genre when a story depicts superheroes who are weak or do not use their powers. What makes a character interesting (both superheroes and other types of characters) is what he does to solve problems. You give him a knotty situation, and he gets out of it. Well, by definition, superheroes use extraordinary physical means … [we] respond to exhibitions of power. That is what a superhero is.”

MCI then defines the superhero character, the superhero world, and the superhero plot.

Although MCI was coined to explain religious concepts, subsequent studies suggest that superheroes in particular demonstrate MCI and so benefit more than other MCI-character types and narratives. For one of Barrett and Nyhoff’s 2001 experiments, participants read a story about an inter-galactic ambassador visiting a museum on the planet Ralyks. The museum featured eighteen exhibits, six with MCI qualities that are also found in superhero comics: Superman’s supervision; Wolverine’s mutant healing; the Blob’s immovable force; Kitty Pryde’s and Vision’s intangibility; Multiple Man’s duplication; and the Watcher’s omniscience. Barrett and Nyhof also bookend their article with references to the contemporary folklore of the part-goat Chivo Man because “a part-animal, part-human creature violates one of our expectations for animals while maintaining rich inferential potential based on pan-cultural category-level knowledge.” Part-animal, part-human characters are also one of the most common naming tropes in superhero comics.

The “Aesop-like fables” created for Upal’s study also reproduce superhero tropes. Of the six MCI qualities contained in the three “Coherent-Counterintuitive” stories, five duplicated superheroes: a “steel-man,” a “wing-man,” an “invisible man,” an “all-seeing woman,” and a “man who could fly and loved helping others.” The “IncoherenCounterintuitive” examples contained only one superhero trope, which appeared in two stories: a woman and then a man both “made of iron.” Upal replaced the previous tropes with non-superhero variants: “a man who had feet instead of hands,” a “villager who could bend spoons with his eyes,” and “a woman from a neighboring village who had ten heads.” Because the coherent and the superheroic coincide, and because the incoherent and the non-superheroic coincide, Upal’s experiment texts further suggest the intrinsic nature of superhero powers as cohesion-producing story elements.

The fact that both Upal’s and Barrett and Nyhof’s studies reproduced superhero character types also makes the researchers unknowing participants in a larger cultural study. The museum beings and Aesop-like characters could be examples of convergent evolution—meaning their authors duplicated Superman’s X-ray vision and the X-Men mutant Colossus’ steel flesh independent of direct influence—or the authors absorbed superhero characters and characteristics unconsciously and reproduced them unknowingly.

Either way, the experiment texts taken as cultural artifacts reveal superheroes as especially fit cultural competitors—due to their apparent pan-cultural appeal.

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