Superman vs Cthulhu: Super Heroes and Cosmic Horror

 

A new project has me thinking about how Super Heroes and Cosmic Horror interact with one another. At first blush, these two genres would seem to be mutually exclusive.

Super Heroes are ultimately symbols of optimism. Their stories are generally about normal people who, when granted powers far greater than those of their peers, seek to bring justice and peace rather than bring war or ruin. Some modern interpretations disagree, of course, but these kinds of deconstructionist views act as the exceptions that prove the rule: you would not have an Authority, for example, without Superman and Batman engaged in the neverending battles and crusades.

On the other side of the genre coin, you have the kind of existential horror exemplified by the work of H.P. Lovecraft and his many collaborators and imitators. Here, heroism is, at best, a naive notion that is quickly dispelled by despair and madness. In cosmic horror, there is no justice or peace, and even war and ruin don’t matter, for the real terror comes not from the amorphous things living just outside of our vision, but from the unfeeling and uncaring universe. Everything is sliding toward entropy and nothingness. Even the monsters are doomed. It is the ultimate expression of pessimism and nihilism.

So how do we bring these two genres together? And, more importantly, why? What can we hope to create from mixing these reagents, and how do we avoid blowing ourselves up in the process?

Is that a deep one?

 

Comic book super heroes and undulating weird horrors have cross paths many time before, of course. super heroes emerged out of the same primordial pre-pulp fiction as did Lovecraft’s work, who was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Algernon Blackwood. The violent, criminal yet essentially “good” masked heroes of the pulp era gave rise to the earliest Super Heroes (the Man of Steel owed much to the Man of Bronze, and Bat-Man was heavily inspired by The Shadow). The pulps were waning just as comics started to rise, but many of the young men (and a few women) creating those early costumed heroes had cut their genre teeth on pulp magazines like Weird Tales. Characters like Dr Fate and The Specter appeared very early on and considered great cosmic powers and elements of horror in their stories.

Super hero stories have always mined horror for villains and plots, embracing whatever monstrosities sit atop the cultural consciousness. Vampires and werewolves have always been popular, usually inspired by the Universal movie versions of those creatures, and there are a number of Frankenstein’s monster analogs and even outright uses. Zombies, the current favorite of pop culture horror, are everywhere and have devoured both the Marvel and DC universes within the last few years. And there are many comics and heroes that site squarely in a place of horror, from Marvel’s Blade and Morbius the Living Vampire to Todd MacFarlane’s Spawn to DC’s Swamp Things and more recently Justice League Dark.

From the Official Dark Horse Hellboy website.

One book in particular, though, really embraces the Lovecraftian side of horror (mixed with just everything else as well). Mike Mignola’s Hellboy — the titular character is a demon, but also a super hero — is a horror comic that does super heroics, or a super hero comic that does horror. In either case, it represents probably the most perfect marriage between the genres, and Mignola’s evocative art and tight scripting do not hurt. However, as good as Hellboy is at mixing these oil-and-water genres, in doing so it pulls the Hellboy character out of the lofty clouds of primary colors, capes and cowls and grounds him with the guns and the ever-present gritty cape analogue of the trench coat. So while we can use Hellboy as a way to start thinking about Super Heroes versus Cosmic Horror, it is just a point of beginning (but a damn entertaining one).

 

You don’t get much Super Hero vs Cosmic Horror than Starro

 

What would Superman do in the face of Cthulhu? How would Batman react upon discovering the Shadow Over Innsmouth? Could Captain America maintain his sanity when confronted by vast uncaring cosmos via the Color Out of Space?

Although the trappings vary, all super heroes essentially punch things for justice: they use direct intervention against enemies that can be beaten, captured and otherwise negated. In short, super heroes can win. By definition, the terrors of cosmic horror cannot be beaten — their victory is inevitable and the only succor against that knowledge is to retreat into madness. This seems at first to be an insurmountable problem in marrying the genres.

What I think allows the super hero to continue to not only exist but to operate and even succeed after a fashion in the context of cosmic horror is their inherent optimism. Super heroes fact insurmountable odds daily — or at least monthly. A meteor rocketing toward the Earth, a virus transforming people into mindless drones, an army of hyper intelligent gorillas invading from two universes over, these are all familiar threats to the super hero, and they all threaten the very existence of mankind. Yet, the super hero soldiers on and preservers.

The only difference between those typical comic book threats and the threat posed by cosmic horror is that the latter cannot be overcome. But that is knowledge reserved for the audience. As far as the super hero is concerned, that elder thing spreadings its dark influence throughout the world and threatening to wake is just another villain to be defeated. That heroic optimism provides the hero with not only the will to face these eldritch horrors, but also at least a modicum of protection against the mind rending, soul shattering truths at the heart of cosmic horror: that we are insignificant in the fact of the enormity of time and space and that we are no more than insects to the vast and incalculable minds of the monstrosities that exist in the dark between the stars.

Moreover, even for the hero that has accepted the inevitability of the ultimate end, the true motivation of most super heroes remains: protect the innocent. In this case, it means saving potential sacrifices from cultists who would hasten the rise of the elder thing, destroying the weird alien creatures that wander aimlessly into our reality, and, occasionally, push back the timeline of that waking just a little longer. It may also mean something else, often outside the usual purview of the super hero: protecting people by hiding the truth from them, sparing them the madness that invariably comes with recognizing the futility of it all.

As different as the genres seem, I think the combination of super heroes and cosmic horror provides a lot of potentially compelling stories, without needing to tarnish or deconstruct the heroes or water down the existential threat of the cosmic horror.

 

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On Being Batman

I have to admit to spending too much time playing the games in the Batman: Arkham series over the past week or so and not nearly enough time writing. With the arrival of the newest game in the series, Arkham Origins, I knew that I had to force myself to put ass to chair and fingers to keyboard lest another day disappear in the murky dark of Gotham City. While I can congratulate myself for managing to do that much at least, my mind is still focused on the superstitious and cowardly lot that so desperately deserve the swift boot of justice.

 

The Arkham games are unique in a couple of ways, not least being they are super-hero video games that are actually good. Despite being a  genre defined by larger than life characters and huge science-fantasy action, super-heroes have not often translated well to the video game medium. Of course, the genre had the same difficulty with motion pictures for many years, with only a few diamonds (Donner’s Superman, Burton’s Batman) among a great deal of coal. I think the same elements that allowed comic book heroes to make a successful transition to the big screen — advances in technology, creators who took the stories seriously (but not too seriously), and a cultural zeitgeist amicable to heroism — are in place to do the same in the video game medium.  The Arkham games have been consistently strong and there are some other examples like the various recent (non-movie tie-in) Spiderman games. If developers start applying the super-hero genre to other video game genres — that is, not assuming that every super-hero game has to be a third person open world actioner — we’ll likely see a lot more good super-hero games.

 

But more than just being good super-hero games (and good games in general) the Arkham games do something else that few games manage to do: they make you, the player, feel like Batman. Not only are all of Batman’s skills and tools at your disposal in play — not just batarangs and grappling hooks, but smoke pellets and CSI -like evidence analysis — but the look, sound and atmosphere of the game is everything you would imagine from living as the Dark Knight. This is important because when it comes to combining games and storytelling, long the province of table-top RPGs and point-and-click adventure games, immersion is key. When you are attempting to do so with a character like Batman who is well known, beloved and has had many different successful iterations over the decades, it is doubly important. Each element of the overall product is bent toward enhancing and enforcing that sense of being Batman on behalf of the player. All the player has to do is relent and psychologically put on the cowl.

 

From a storyteller’s perspective, this achievement in immersion is worth examining. An immersed audience is, by definition, invested, and an invested audience buys into whatever stakes the storyteller has presented. When that happens, the outcome of the story suddenly matters, at least for the time that the audience is immersed. Whether a film or novel or comic or video game, a work that draws (or drags) the audience in is more successful (for certain definitions of success). Certainly there are times when we want the audience to experience a story or part of a story from a detached perspective. You see this a lot when storytellers shift points of view from the protagonist to that of either the villain, who is supposed to remain mysterious and/or inscrutable, or a hapless victim. The creator pulls back, bringing the audience along, to get an aerial view instead of an internal one. The opposite is true sometimes, too, when what the storyteller wants is a visceral but uncertain experience on the part of the audience, Suddenly, we are seeing through another’s eyes and only getting limited information filtered through pain, fear, desperation or what-have-you. But both of these shifts in immersion are temporary, where the kind of immersion experienced in being Batman must be carried through the entire storytelling experience.

 

The next time you sit down to write for writings sake, try creating a truly immersive narrative based on a well established character. Let your reader become Sherlock Holmes or Superman or Richard Nixon. Without the benefit of music and high resolution digital imagery, you’ll have to rely on the key components of what makes the character iconic and then transfer those not just to but into the reader via prose. Good luck.

 

And now, I think I see the Bat Signal alight in the sky…

The Circle Of Protection Service

I was unsure whether to include this in this blog, as it is just a write-up for a super-hero table top RPG I run. But as I am trying to get as many words written as possible, and this is going to devour much of my creative energy for the next couple of weeks, I figured, why not? Besides, gaming in general and TTRPGs in particular have defined my creative life for, well, most of my creative life. I tend to run games the same way I write — an idea, an outline maybe and then just go! — and I tend to treat my pre-game writing as seriously (or not, as the case may be) as my fiction. And, utlimately, there’s only like 2 of you so what’s the harm in boring you with some gaming related nonsense?

 

After the text itself, I will make a few comments, so if you make it through, stick around.

———-

During the Great War, the Circle of Protection — a loose alliance of super-beings — brought their incredible talents to bear against the rising evil of Osiron Empire and its saboteurs, secret agents and super villains allies. In their bright primary colors and their two fisted attitudes, the Circle of Protection enamoured the people of Erebar and the world over.

 

After the war, the Ereban-Dukemian-Hin Alliance (later to be called the Mutual Economic Defense and Interest Alliance (MEDIA) as other member states joined) agreed to expand the Circle of Protection program to include a “mundane” support network of military and civilian specialists. Over the course of the next ten years, that support staff became more and more prominent. The Circle Of Protection Service (COPS) was no long a super-hero team backed up by normal agents, but an expansive governmental agency (much of it clandestine) with a small super-heroic action team.

 

The directorship of COPS was granted to a military intelligence officer from the Great War, one Colonel Abernathy Paladin. Colonel Paladin was responsible for bringing the super-heroic members of the original CoP team in-line with MEDIA’s (and especially Erebar’s) interests and policies, or push them out. In addition, Col. Paladin made great strides in the growing cold war between MEDIA and the Elven Empire over the acquisition of newfound super-weapons (and super-people) in the post-War era. By allowing just enough of these secret operations to leak to the public (successful ones, of course) Paladin ensured strong public support for what was quickly becoming a super-spy international paramilitary organization.

 

Over the years, COPS has split its focus between the machinations of the Elven Empire and the emergence of independent super-beings (both hero and villain). Too often, these aspects cross and intertwine because of the Elven Empire’s aggressive policy of capture, containment and recruitment of super-powered individuals. In response, Col. Paladin instituted a controversial policy (among the Ereban and MEDIA governments, anyway) of undermining the very concept of the independent “super hero” and bolster the idea of the COPS as a super-response force. In this, their most useful and successful tool is the super-hero known as Bulkhead.

 

Bulkhead, monstrous in appearance but loyal and good in heart, emerged in the days prior to the Great War and joined the side of the angels as a member of the original Circle of Protection. After the war ended, Bulkhead stayed on and lent his immense power to the new COPS organization. Unsubtle in every way, Bulkhead is released against monsters that emerge from ancient mystical sites, horrors of science gone awry and other larger and louder than life threats. While all eyes (and cameras) are on Bulkhead, the rest of the COPS special team does its work (dirty or otherwise). Aside from his great power, the other advantage Col. Paladin saw in using Bulkhead as the public face of COPS super-heroics is his alienness. No square jawed, perfect haired hero with a shining emblem on his chest, Bulkhead is forever an Other, no matter how much good he does.

 

The recent increase in Eleven activity in non-MEDIA member states, especially the [African continent] countries as well as the rise in instances of individuals expressing or developing superpowered or mystical abilities has put COPS in a prominent position and made Col. Paladin one of the most powerful men in Erebar. With the apparent threats ever increasing, Paladin goes to more and more extreme lengths to combat those threats, using the twin tools of the COPS secret agents and its super-powered action team.

 ———-

I am guessing that you have a weird feeling of dissonance, that there are both familiar things in there and unfamiliar, connected in ways that don’t quite line up (unless, of course, you have played in a D&D campaign that have moved into a modern era dominated by super heroes). I thought I might explain a little bit. Obviosly, a great deal of the inspiration for this (and the previous events of the campaign) is American super hero comics, especially the various titles that take modern looks at the historical comic book eras. However, because this campaign and world were born out of a long series of D&D adventures, the inspiration and base mythology upon which the super heroic universe is built is different. In our world, the comic book heroes are based on folktales and myths common to Western civilization (or the near East and East, but poorly translated). Robin Hood, King Arthur, Thor, Zeus and Uncle Sam all serve as basis for American super-heroes. While I have intentionally held on to the tropes and themes of our worlds of comics, I have tried to replace those real world influences with ones from our D&D campaign world — the gods, heroes and adventures we created over the course of nearly a decade. Of course, because we were playing Dungeons and Dragons, itself a product of the mishmash of Western mythology and folklore and the pulp fantasies of the mid 20th century, there is certainly a lot of overlap. The goal, in many cases, is to try and find where we can bury the real world trope in its equivalent D&D campaign world trope.

 

It would take far too long to discuss all the details of that overlap. Suffice it to say, we have found a good balance where we are informed by our influences and are able to creatively merge them in telling each other a story about super-powered people beating up other super-powered people. It probably seems a vain pursuit to the non-gamer, but I suppose to the non-writer, crafting a world and the people within that world, and their stories, seems equally vain.