Has Brad Bird read Superfolks?

August 12, 2012

I would guess so, since The Incredibles shares much thematically with this 1977 novel by Robert Mayer. I discovered Superfolks recently myself, and I find the concepts familiar – but only because we have been immersed in the postmodern phase of the superhero for multiple decades now.

Mayer should get credit for being a trailblazer in this genre, if it could be classified as such. He created a world with a fading pantheon of superheroes, dead, dismembered, retired, with his main figure, his “Superman,” stuck in a schlubby middle-class existence, doing the dull, enervating stuff you and I do every day. Sound familiar?

My first experience with superhero deconstruction was in the short-story collection Alien Sex. In the short story “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex,” which predates Superfolks by six years, Larry Niven speculated on the biological realities of the Man of Steel when trying to have sex and reproduce. Superman’s sperm, as with all other cells in his body, would be infused with super abilities and thus would shoot through Lois Lane at super speed, a notion familiar to all who have seen Mallrats. But Niven added the image of thousands of super-sperm, flying the skies over Metropolis, looking for eggs to inseminate. Niven’s speculative essay is definitely worth enduring the worst book cover ever.

Then came Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, which has yet to be bettered. Seriously – it is better than Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Sin City combined. But I digress.

The Incredibles is firmly ensconced in this modern superhero tradition, but the thing is, Brad Bird, whether intended or not, takes it one step further and deconstructs all of humanity. You see, the Big Bad in the story, Syndrome, voiced by Jason Lee of “kryptonite condom” fame (from the aforementioned Mallrats), is a mythic character himself. What was his ultimate goal? It was to make everyone a superhero so that, in the end, there would be nothing “special” about his former idol Mr. Incredible. He is our modern-day Prometheus, bringing fire to us mere mortals, and like Prometheus, he was punished for his attempt to challenge the gods.

Syndrome never accepted the ultimate truth of The Incredibles universe: There are only a few special people in the world, and you are not one of them.

That’s why it is acceptable for the speedster Dash to compete in track and field with the “ordinaries,” despite the fact that there is no doubt he will win every single race with barely an effort. He crushes his fellow classmates, reminding them that, no matter how hard they try, they are just ordinary humans – and that will never be good enough.

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