Friday, July 1, 2011

Iconography and Aesthetics

There are hundreds, possibly thousands of superheroes worldwide. However some of the most successful have instantly recognisable iconography. This iconography is hugely important and Henry Jenkins has argued that the costumes, insignia and weaponry of modern heroic characters “mirrored the detailed descriptions of the shields and weapons of the different Greek heroes found in Homer, suggesting that heraldry in some forms remains an active element in stories across history.” It is this ‘heraldry’ that makes different superheroes easily identifiable, something that was crucial in the early comics which were frequently poorly printed. Today, in a film like X Men: First Classor Watchmen where a large number of superheroes and villains are introduced in a short space of time, audiences need to be able to quickly identify the different characters. A secondary part of a superhero’s iconography is the way that it can tell a viewer something about the character, their personality and attitudes. If we look at Green Arrow and Green Lantern, two green-suited DC superheroes that often work together and have similar goals, their iconography is key to telling them apart. In addition Green Arrow’s Robin Hood inspired costume reflects the way he takes radical action against social and political issues, just like his forebear.

As a wartime creation Captain America was deliberately patriotic and symbolic of the nation he represented. This connection to America is depicted clearly through his iconography. He wears a red, white and blue costume decorated with the stars and stripes. It is interesting to note that Captain America usually carries only a shield which (although used as a discus), suggests that he and by extension America, is a defender not an aggressor.

I am wondering how well this kind of patriotic character will translate internationally. Politically, America is not universally respected, and a character that defines himself by his American values may be poorly received. However in this Captain America film the character has been safely contained within a historical past with an unproblematic war that has universally accepted villains. By contrast his appearance in the upcoming Avengers film may be more problematic because it is set in the present. What other examples of patriotic superheroes are there, and how well have they travelled outside their geographical boundaries?

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