Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Vampires and Superheroes

Last Saturday's #UFChat was a Q&A with Dr. Rebecca Housel, writer of, among other things, True Blood and Philosophy and X-Men and Philosophy. As always in a Twitter chat, there were more questions posed that could be answered, because Twitter chats move fast. One of the questions that got more or less skipped was intriguing, but not really answerable in the 140 characters that Twitter allows. It made me sit up and go, "Hmm."

What is the relationship between vamps and superheros?

Like I said, intriguing. Also fraught and complicated. I'm not Dr. Housel, but I'm going to see if I can't unpack this a little.

First off, on the more obvious level, both vampires and superheroes have superhuman abilities. They're fast and agile, long-lived, occasionally psychic, and have strange weaknesses like glowing rocks and garlic. They also tend to be wealthy, and snappy dressers. Now, you might say that vampires actually have more in common with supervillains than they do with superheroes. I'll get to that in a sec. But there is actually a trope in urban fantasy that support the superhero comparison.

The good vamp trope features a vampire as either the protagonist, one of the protagonist's sidekicks, or the love interest. This vampire is often alienated from their fellow bloodsuckers, usually because of moral code differences (i.e., this vamp has one). Quite often these differences surface as, among other things, a refusal to drink human blood—or a refusal to kill humans, if human blood is the only option for vamps within the world. The good vamp generally works alongside humans, despite the vampire inability to play well with others, and hunts other vampires or supernatural creatures. They use their vampire powers to do this. It's pretty easy to draw parallels here with superheroes who occasionally brood about how being superhuman is a bad thing, and whose sense of ethics compels them to promote justice.

Now, vampires as supervillains … yes, this too. Vampires scheme. They have plans within plans within plans, and they also have Plan B's and C's. They live in the dark. They wear black. They consort with all kinds of evil-doers. They hold humans in thrall to do their bidding. They may come off as pillar of the community types, who exist only to serve the public good, but that's just to hide their real agenda. They're big fans of political power. They're wealthy. They're snappy dressers. They frequently have Old World accents. They have fantastic powers that let them tear someone's throat out before that someone can blink. The good guys tend to have it out for them. Sound like a supervillain to you?

Moving away from character traits and story roles, and into the realm of pop culture, how do vampires compare to superheroes? Vampires get books and TV shows and the occasional movie and comic*. Superheroes get comic books and movies and the occasional TV show and novel. They're both crowd-pleasers, to the tune of millions of dollars. Vampires draw more of the fantasy crowd, I think, while superheroes seem to attract more science fiction people. And folks like me who're into both genres have been known to go for both. Some people say vampires and superheroes are done, over, finished, but superhero movies continue to be popular and so do novels with vampires in them. Sure, fewer people seem to be rushing out to buy comics than back in the 1940s, but all in all, I'd say, in pop culture, vampires and superheroes are more or less equal.

It's when you get archetypes, metaphors, and zeitgeist that differences start popping up. Superheroes are people we look up to, people who've become more than human, protectors and enforcers and frequently fronts for social messages like Don't Steal and Terrorism Is Bad. The heyday of comics ran from the Depression through three Western wars**. The heyday of comic book movies corresponds to a Western war in the Middle East and continuing fear of terrorism.

Vampires, on the other hand, are generally anti-heroes or full-out villains. We can admire some of their qualities, but when you get down to it, they're generally violent and manipulative and ruthless. Batman's the only superhero I can think of who exhibits similar traits. Vampires have always kind of been there, but it wasn't until Interview with the Vampire back in '76 that the good vamp trope came to prominence.*** And then the '80s hit, with their truly scary vampire cinema—the '80s, of course, being the decade of expense, materialism, and really loud fashion that followed the Vietnam War. Watchmen came out, questioning and deconstructing superheroes. Pop culture got a lot sexier.*** Correlation? Likely.

Vampires are often taken to represent sex, resurrection, our darker urges, fear of the dark, etc. etc. They're a way of talking about all that stuff without actually talking about it. They're our id, our primal urges, our animalistic selves. What do superheroes stand in for? Hopes and dreams? Justice and ethics? The super-ego, which encompasses conscience and perfection, among other things? They sound pretty opposite to me, on this level.

So yes, lots of similarities, a fair number of differences, and an interesting correlation between what was happening in the world, and what was popular in the media. Of course either vampires or superheroes have ever died off completely—or even a little bit—so there will be rebuttals and you're welcome to put those in the comments. I love discussion! Are vampires today's superheroes? No, but some of them come close.  Are they our anti-heroes? Quite likely. Do I want to see a superhero-vampire face-off now? Heck yes!

* Buffy and Angel, for instance
** If you count the cold one
*** I think. Pretty sure, anyway. Correct me if I'm wrong.


Hannah said...

Nice analysis! I have to comment on your Batman reference, though: I didn't think Batman was supposed to be particularly violent. I mean, doesn't he specifically never use guns or kill people? That was my memory. (Although it's getting a little more questionable in the new movies, I agree.)

Anassa said...

I know next to nothing about the Batman canon, Hannah. It's entirely possible you're right. But I get the impression that while he doesn't kill, Batman uses more force than necessary, which is something most other superheroes don't do. He's an expert at multiple martial arts, after all. He doesn't need guns. I've seen enough references to and parodies of Batman violence to believe they're at least somewhat true.

Brooke Johnson said...

Great post Anassa!
I had never really thought about the comparisons between vamps and superheroes. Personally, I like the dark and violent vampires over the morally conflicted vamps. Best of all is the sexy, violent vampire. That's just me. ;)