How to Create a Brand New Iconic Hero or Villain

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We’ve been having some recent discussions here about the nature of “pulp”, and it reminded me of this article by Charlie Jane Anders from iO9, which he wrote back in January, prior to the release of John Carter.  It’s worth another look now.

Over a decade into the 21st Century, our imaginations are captivated by creations of the 19th and 20th. Sherlock Holmes rules television and movies. We’re eagerly awaiting new movies about James Bond, Captain Kirk, Superman, Batman and Spider-Man. Where are the 21st Century mass-media heroes and villains? Why isn’t anybody even trying to create them?

Part of the answer is that almost all of our truly mainstream heroes and monsters arose from pulpy mass media, created cheaply at the start of a genre’s lifespan. To create new giant heroes, you need a new pulp. And new genres.
Top image: JLA/Avengers.

I’ll admit up front that I think about this sort of thing way too much, but here goes. In the last generation, I’d argue that only one truly iconic hero or villain has been created: Harry Potter (and, to a lesser extent, his nemesis Voldemort.) Potter’s the only character created in the past 20-odd years who has the same level of cultural relevance as the biggest superheroes and most lasting pulp heroes. (And of course, the longer Harry goes without new books or movies, the more likely that is to change.)

Everything else that’s been created since, say, Bill Clinton’s inauguration has been either:
1) Not terribly heroic (see Twilight), or:
2) Not too culturally significant — mostly a cult icon, rather than a huge mainstream hit. Yes, that includes Buffy. Sorry.

Is Pulp Over?

To some extent, this is because the media landscape has changed so much in the past few decades. Media companies have become much bigger and more consolidated, and most of those great well-known characters are corporate IP. It’s hard to understate the role of years of Happy Meal packaging and television ads in making characters stick in your mind. Plus, with the rise of CG effects, any really epic hero is going to be expensive to create. (And thus, any attempt at creating one from scratch will probably be bland as hell, because of the need to try and ensure a good ROI by appealing to all four quadrants.)

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3 comments

  • Interesting questions about the “post-herioc” era. There are quite a few anti-heroes these days, and a lot of focus on “gray areas”. Though, I think most of the post-heroism that we see is more of a trend of exploring ambiguity, rather than an attempt to actually redefine mainstream tastes. As the writer notes, Harry Potter is a traditional hero and has blown away his literary competition. Similarly, The Avengers, and of course Avatar, feature traditional heroes and are in the top three most financially successful films ever. So, the hero is still the meat and potatoes of what people love about storytelling. A lot of readers and viewers will go along with anti-heroes and moral ambiguity for artistic experiences and to feel “edgy” but the numbers don’t lie when the time comes for mass audiences to put their money where their heart truly is.

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