Monday, July 29, 2013

SDCC 2013 - CAC Defines Superheroes

CAC co-founders
Peter Coogan & Randy Duncan
Got pulled in too many directions, and didn't make it to as many of the Comic Arts Conference panels as I would have liked this year. The two I saw were really excellent!

The first, Geek Therapy: How Superheroes Empower All of Us, explored the many different ways people are using the good qualities of superheroes to inspire and empower people to heal mentally and physically.  I was pretty surprised to see the conference schedule show up on Psychology Today (posted by panel moderator Travis Langley) but SDCC has become such a media behemoth you can never predict where it's going to appear anymore. Panelists included Patrick O'Connor (Chicago School of Professional Psychology; Comicspedia) and Josue Cardona (Geek Therapy Podcast), Laura Vecchiolla and Elizabeth Smith (also from Chicago SoPP), and Frank Gaskill and Dave Verhaagen (Southeast Psych).

Many beautiful stories, and a welcome emphasis on the positive traits people can connect with enhance their lives. I loved the question, "What is right with people?" (as opposed the usual "What is wrong?") and the effort to build on the positive traits a troubled or ill person might already have. Positive superhero traits were listed as resiliency, strength, courage and overall happiness (the traditional Superman is used as an example).

What is a Superhero? Peter, Robin,
Stanford, Dana, John & Randy
The second panel, What is a Superhero?: Professional & Scholarly Views featured contributors to the new book, What is a Superhero? (Oxford University Press) edited by Peter Coogan (Institute for Comic Studies) and Robin Rosenberg (Huntington Post) with Randy Duncan (the Power of Comics) moderating.

Pete Coogan (Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre) defined the elements that make up a superhero: selfless, pro-social mission; superpowers or other extraordinary abilities or skills; codename & costume often signifying powers and/or origin; often has secret identity; can be distinguished from characters from related genres by generic conventions.

John Jennings (University at Buffalo) talked about the power of memory, and asked the audience to think about the circumstances surrounding the first time they experienced comics; In the newspaper? On a drugstore spinner rack? With family or friends? Which character? etc... I enjoyed this exercise because I clearly remember my father teaching me figure drawing using Captain American and Wonder Woman as models. They were exaggerated, yes, but I was probably all of 5-6 years old, and they held my attention. Comics have always been part of my life.

Stanford Carpenter (Institute for Comic Studies) talked about the responsibilities of power, and how superheroes often face sacrifice and/or self-denial. He used the example of Professor X, a powerful psychic with dreams of mutant/human co-existence. His mutant power is so strong, he could just change everyone's minds, yet he struggles allow everyone free will and often gets in trouble for psychically influencing the minds of his students and colleagues. In this way he is always struggling with elements of his larger goals and his own essential nature.

Dana Anderson (Maine Maritime Academy) provided a graphic designer's analysis of superheroes. He talked about how we subconsciously equate "good" with symmetry & balance, for example the stereotypical superhero stance, feet planted apart and hands on hips, or the commonly symmetrical costumes they wear. He pointed out that heroes costumes are often primary colors on a color wheel, and villains are often dressed in secondary colors. He also did a study of logos and chest emblems.

Robin Rosenberg laid out the four types of villain/hero relationships, and how these bring out the best in the hero:
  1. Straightforward Criminal (bank robbers, etc). Motivated by material gain & power. Straightforward action on the hero's part.
  2. Vengeful Villain. Conflict is personal. Wants to eliminate or be superior to the hero. Only happy when orchestrating a crushing defeat when the hero is at the height of their powers. Battle of wits or brawn, intensity builds.
  3. Heroic Villain. Altruistic, believes they are fighting for a good cause. Here the hero has to deal with their own conscience and ethics.
  4. Sadistic Super Villain. Gets kicks out of wrecking havoc, death, torture, inflict pain on innocents. Hero often has to "fight dirty" by getting into the villain's twisted mind-set to fight them. Hard moral choices.
A lively discussion followed as a series of slides were shown and the audience debated if a character was or was not technically a superhero.

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