October 18, 2010

Compelling superheroes and villains are created during violent times

You might wonder how it could be otherwise. I've already shown how little innovation (and so how much recycling) in children's cartoons and toys there's been since the early '90s decline in crime, and that includes those belonging to the hero-vs-villain type. I recently showed how forgettable the action and horror movies of the same period have been, compared to those made during the '60s through the '80s, looking at whether they've contributed memorable catch phrases to the larger culture. What about those other sources of new hero and villain characters -- comic books and video games?

There was a comic book bubble that burst in the early 1990s, after which the medium has been dead, so the fact that the low-crime times of post-1992 have produced no characters that have gone viral in the larger culture could simply be due to that. Marv from Sin City was created in 1991, Spawn in 1992, and Hellboy in 1993 -- and that's it. Of super-famous characters, the most recent one is probably Venom, created in 1988.

So we'll have to look at the pre-crash years in order to better judge whether or not the creation of compelling new characters depends on whether the violence level in society is soaring or plummeting.

The homicide rate began falling in 1934 and stayed low through 1958, then it rose through 1992. There are virtually no superstar comic book characters created in the 1950s (Green Lantern's first appearance in 1959 is not a counter-example to our prediction). Even most of the '30s and '40s saw very few, except for a handful of admittedly mega-famous ones within the three years of 1939 to 1941 -- Batman, Superman, the Joker, Lex Luthor, and Captain America. Maybe Wonder Woman. It's not as though comic books were an obscure entertainment form from '34 to '58, yet they produced few enduring characters.

In contrast, the high-crime times produced almost all of the ones that have lasted, and it's not just because the high-crime period has more years -- you could compare '38 to '58 vs. '60 to '80 and little would change. It may sound silly to throw comic books in with sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, but wild times cause people to think more about good guys vs. bad guys. In particular, it makes them want more concrete scapegoats or villains to focus their anger on, not just an unseen bunch of muggers and rapists, and it makes them want to look to heroes for guidance through the dangerous world.

In fact, the two large bursts of innovation in comic book characters coincides with the two large bursts in rock music creativity -- the first half of the 1960s, and the mid-late '70s, with a comparative lull in the late '60s and early '70s. Just look at all the recent movies based on comic book characters -- aside from Batman and Superman, the blockbuster ones featured characters who date back to these two bursts 30 to 50 years ago.

This pattern for superhero movies parallels the pattern in album sales -- the #1 album in the 2000s in America was a Beatles compilation! If what's out now stinks, might as well try to keep the past alive.

Returning to the post-crash era of the past 18 years, we can still see that this period would not have produced any compelling characters even if comic books had continued as popular entertainment for kids and teenagers. Just look at video games, which largely replaced comic books. All of the superstar characters there were created from the beginning of video games in the late '70s through the peak of the violence level in 1992. Of the early icons, only Pac-Man and Donkey Kong have survived, but that's still impressive. Let alone how popular Pac-Man was when it came out -- there were not only cartoons, books, lunchboxes, etc., as with later characters, but even a Billboard top 10 hit, "Pac-Man Fever."

The bulk of superstar characters come from the mid-'80s to early '90s, though, with virtually none coming from the post-'92 low-crime period. The only exceptions are the butt-kicking babes from the Tomb Raider and Resident Evil series, who went viral only because it gave dorks some familiar eye candy in a movie, and Pokemon. Everyone else is from high-crime times: Mario, Link, Sonic, Samus, Simon Belmont, Solid Snake, the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat people, Kirby, and so on.

This look into the history of comic books and video games explains a lot more about the world, since it tells us that it's almost only when people see times as violent and getting worse that new heroes and villains are created that are fascinating enough to withstand the test of time. This aspect of mythogenesis explains why hunter-gatherers, nomadic herders, and settled farmers had much richer mythologies than we do -- the homicide rate has been steadily falling, with some exceptions, since roughly 1600 in northern Europe. That's the main reason why there was such a flourishing of new religions up through about 1000 AD, and hardly anything since then. People insulated from danger feel no need for religion, myth, magic, etc.


  1. there are still some memorable characters made after early 90s. master chief, sephiroth, sarah kerrigan - queen of blades, naturo and ichigo from bleach.

    also, many of the characters you mention come from japan, which has a very low crime rate compared to the US. do you think that the US crime rate influenced japanese culture to the extent that it's game creators came up with more memorable characters?

  2. And for your next trick, you can explain this.


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