Hero Worship?

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The September 1, 2008, issue of The New Yorker is just packed with superhero references, each of which presupposes some knowledge of the genre on the reader’s part.

Ariel Levy’s profile of fashion designer Marc Jacobs (“Enchanted”) name-drops four alter egos:

He looks like a cartoon superhero: muscular, bronzed, shining with diamonds. And he has accomplished the comic-book feat of transforming himself from hardworking Everyman (Bruce Banner, Clark Kent, Peter Parker) into something elevated and different and not merely human.

[…]

Jacobs doesn’t have a butler like Bruce Wayne’s Alfred Pennyworth, but he does have a chef . . .

Perhaps the reader isn’t expected to know which superhero corresponds to which alter ego, the reference to alter egos being sufficient to cast Jacobs as someone who has transformed his image as surely as if he had slid down the Bat Pole and phoned the Boy Wonder for a crime-fighting date.

Batman and Robin, by iambigred, via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial License.

The same issue contains another, more subtle reference to a superhero and his alter ego. Sasha Frere-Jones, in “Sex and Sermons,” plays off the nearness of a singer’s stage name to that of a green-skinned hero in the cinemas of late:

Calling yourself David Banner—a mild-mannered alter ego of the Incredible Hulk—makes perfect sense for a big, six-foot-three man from Jackson, Mississippi, who has scored club hits with crude, elemental songs about sex …

Here, the reader is expected to know that Bruce Banner is the alter ego of the Incredible Hulk, the close similarities in the names providing a nice allusion to the singer’s stylistic choices.

Contrast this effortless name-dropping to The New Yorker‘s need to explain patiently that Dr. Who is a British television show. I suppose the recent proliferation of superhero movies makes such popular culture references possible without resort to explanatory, appositive phrases, and I wager that ten years ago superhero references either would have been elaborated on or simply not used.

While I’m glad that the caped crusaders are having their moment in the cultural sun, I still yearn for the day when one can say something like, “Yeah, this is about as confusing as that time the Doctor got trapped in the Pyramids of Mars” without a lengthy explanation following.

(Image courtesy of iambigred, via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial License.)

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