Iconic Heroes of the 21st Century

harry potter“Where are the 21st Century mass-media heroes and villains? Why isn’t anybody even trying to create them?”

This question was recently posed by Charlie Jane Anders of io9, in an article titled ‘How to Create A Brand New Iconic Hero or Villain.’ It is certainly a valid question, well worth asking as our mainstream pop culture is indeed currently saturated by icons from bygone eras – Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Batman, Superman, Spider Man and Captain Kirk.

Harry Potter, Anders suggests, is “the only character created in the past 20-odd years who has the same level of cultural relevance as the biggest superheroes and most lasting pulp heroes.” With the end of both the book and the film series the longevity of Harry Potter as our apparent only true 21st Century hero is called into question.  The truth of this argument can’t be easily dismissed.  What can be questioned, however, are the reasons Anders claims that we are so short on 21st Century mainstream hero icons.

Pulp Media and Other Factors in Mainstream Hero Longevity
Our current mainstream iconic pop culture heroes were all born in pulp media. Comic books, for the majority. Cheap, mass produced, widely distributed forms of media created, in Ander’s words, at the beginning of a genre’s lifespan.  “To create new giant heroes, you need a new pulp. And new genres.”  This seems like a slightly over simplified explanation.  Yes, the great and famous heroes and their antagonists have always come from a form of pulp media and I agree that will continue to be the case to some extent.  But the pulp medium isn’t the most significant factor involved in the mainstream cultural longevity of heroes and their villains.

Perpetuation, Multi-Media and Multiple Incarnations are the three factors that have allowed these iconic heroes of past eras to continue to saturate the collective mainstream cultural consciousness.  While it was important, I’m not convinced their origin in pulp media has been a continued significant driving force in their longevity.

Batman has been at the forefront of our mainstream pop culture for so long because he continues to be created and recreated in numerous media, comics, TV, videogames, movies, novelisations, everything.  And there is more than one type of Batman – the mysterious Caped Crusader of the 1940s; the kitschy Batman of the 1960s TV series; the glossy, suave Batman of the 1990s movies; the dark and dangerous Dark Knight Batman of the Frank Miller books and recent Christopher Nolan films. These are all different characters of the same character.   Even his logo has changed and is now more modern, more edgy.

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The mainstream got to know Batman through the culturally forms of the TV series and movies, cult communities got to know Batman through the very different comic adaptations, which are now getting that same main mainstream exposure through the Nolan films.  The same is the case with Superman who has reincarnated countless times as child, teen, and adult, in TV series, comics, films and games, although unlike Batman, Superman’s general personality has changed very little.

The perpetuation of these heroes in these ways have allowed the continuation of their iconic status for more than half a century. That they started cheaply in pulp media is only one part of the equation.

Why Do These Heroes Persist? Will Batman Fade Away?
We have no, or at least very few new iconic heroes because we still haven’t finished with the old ones.  We’re still adapting them to our current cultural climates as we’ve done for generations. The 1960s needed a light and straightforward good guy protector Batman, the 2000s needs the morally ambiguous warrior Batman, our Dark Knight.  A wealth of new media technology has made seeing these old characters in new ways quite the novelty also.  Anders speculates however, that even Batman will fade away, that no hero has a shelf life over 100 years.  The current resurgence of Sherlock Holmes, a 125 year old character with two new popular versions, may be the most simple argument against that. A 100 year old shelf life is not something we can say for sure, it remains speculation at least for another 30 years of Batman. Just because Tarzan faded (but never completely disappeared), doesn’t mean Batman will.  Given the perpetual reincarnation of Batman, I’m doubtful this will be the case so long as the character continues to resurface in various culturally relevant incarnations. He has made it this far, afterall.

So, Why are There No New 21st Century Heroic Icons?
Anders suggests there are no new heroic icons, and won’t ever be because our mainstream pop culture characters are all corporate intellectual property, and the expense of making a new film or other mass medium inhibits the distribution, the widespread presence needed to plant these characters into our cultural consciousness.  The lack of a true pulp medium is the lack of the foundation needed for this widespread presence. No indie pulp, no mainstream heroes.  There’s an element of truth in this, but I’m still not in complete agreement.

The current boom in digital self-publishing is arguably the new pulp.  Does this mean that our next generation of mainstream heroic icons will have their beginnings in self published materials?  Anders addresses this but claims the saturation of these markets by wannabe authors looking to be the next J.K Rowling inhibits the emergence of a potentially iconic creation in these fields.  Industry is well aware of the potential finding the next big thing in self published material, which is why it’s not unheard of that indie authors do sometimes get their big corporate breaks.  I still fail to see how a large number of wannabe creators in a medium will inhibit the creation and emergence of a new icon.

Anders emphasises these pulp materials need to be disdained by the “high culture”, the journals, the so called tastemakers. However, the value boundaries between high and low culture are not as relevant as they used to be, in much academic discourse they’re even non-existent.  The separation between the two is still present in mainstream culture, but it is increasingly understood as a fluid distinction and a subjective value label. Sites like io9 and Pop Cultured are testimony to this.  High or Low culture isn’t a relevant factor in securing that mainstream popularity.

What about Video Games?
Many reader comments on the i09 article suggested video games are the sources for the new heroes.  Video games are a massive force in popular culture, we only need to look at the recent Skyrim phenomenon to see that.  Despite the fact that videogames as yet are still quite thin on characterisation and even plot, if we’re talking mainstream cultural relevance, characters originating in video games will only reach iconic status if they’re adapted into a more widespread medium like TV or film.  Video game playing is too much of a sub-cultural activity to be considered truly mainstream and I don’t see this ever going to change due to the actual active process required to use the medium.

Scott Pilgrim vs The WorldWhat About Manga or Anime?
It should also be pointed out that both this discussion and Anders’ original article have both focussed solely on Western pop culture.  Japanese Manga and Anime is still cheaply mass produced and widely circulated, even in the true literal pulp of low grade paper products. These are still classified as cult materials in Western culture, but the influence of Japanese comic forms is still evident in mainstream Western media. Scott Pilgrim, for example, a Shōnen manga style comic character created by Canadian artist, Bryan Lee O’Malley touched mainstream pop culture with the film Scott Pilgrim vs The World.  I’m not claiming that Scott Pilgrim will be the new Batman, or even that he’s a mainstream iconic hero at all. The point here is that there is a whole world of pulpy popular culture where the next iconic hero may be still circling the underground.  Remember, there was a time when even Batman wasn’t a mainstream name.

But Are There Really No New Heroes? Really?

“Everything else that’s been created since, say, Bill Clinton’s inauguration has been either:
1) Not terribly heroic (see Twilight), or:
2) Not too culturally significant — mostly a cult icon, rather than a huge mainstream hit. Yes, that includes Buffy. Sorry.”

Buffy_logo_0001I almost agree with this. The mass cultural saturation of Twilight definitely qualifies as mainstream status, but since we’re talking here about icons and heroes Twilight doesn’t even come into the equation.  I agree also that Buffy is not quite mainstream iconic status, but I debate the point that Buffy is “not too culturally significant”. Buffy may be a cult, but it’s a pretty big one.

Regular readers of Pop Cultured will know I fly the flag of Buffy the Vampire Slayer high and proud. This said, I do regard the Slayer in cultural terms from an objective standpoint as much as is possible.  Of all of the heroic creations come into being in the last two decades, Buffy has the most chance of reaching the mainstream iconic hero status that we’re talking about.  It hasn’t happened yet because the Buffyverse, as it’s known, is still quite new.  Batman has been kicking around since 1939. Buffy’s only been around since 1992, and then only the real Buffy in the TV series since 1997.  Just as we can only speculate that Batman will fade away, it’s only speculation that the Slayer won’t take his place.  Ok, perhaps that was an exaggeration. Buffy won’t ever take Batman’s place, but they can exist simultaneously in the future as mainstream iconic heroes.

buffy season 8Buffy has this potential because the franchise already has the three keys of reaching mainstream iconic status – perpetuation, multiple media and multiple incarnations.  The character had her beginnings in a cheap, critically disdained movie so that even fits with Anders’ criteria for a new hero. There’s already a Buffy movie and a Buffy TV series as well as Angel, a spin off series set in the same world.  There are Buffy video games. There are Buffy comics as both simultaneous and or alternative parallel stories to the TV series, and the continuation of the series story in the Season 8 and 9 books.  Even these have their ancillary products in Fray.  And there’s a new movie in the works claiming to be aiming for a darker side of the slayer world, that will, rumour has it, not have Buffy as the central character.  There are hundreds of Slayers in the Buffyverse now, some of them even bad guys. It’s fertile ground for a continuing mythology.  For more on my thoughts of Buffy’s status as a mainstream superhero, see “The Conflict of Buffy – Examining the Good and Bad of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer Remake.”

The Harry Potter universe has recently been expanded with Pottermore. I highly doubt the collective franchise owners will let go of Harry Potter completely simply because the original books and movie series’ are done. Who knows? We may still see Hogwarts: The Next Generation and the icon will continue.  There is nothing to say that the Slayer won’t reach Batman degree mainstream iconic status over the decades to come, or that Harry Potter won’t stick around for another 50 or more years. But it’s true, the characters and their universes do need continued renewal.

Instead of saying we have no new 21st century iconic heroes, perhaps it would be better said that as those heroes of the early part of the 20th century are still relevant, are still in demand that there has been less requirement for others to develop.  Perhaps no heroes made in the, say 1970s and 1980s had the longevity of those that reigned  in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s simply because no one liked them as much. Who knows what will happen in the future? Maybe Batman will go back to his more positive Adam West style persona when mainstream culture is no longer up for the morally ambiguous Dark Knight.  Without the benefit of hindsight, or future vision, who knows, even Ben 10 may one day stand beside Batman. And Buffy.


Kate Krake

Kate Krake (aka Kate Murphy) is a writer with a long established passion for all realms of popular culture. She lives in Brisbane, Australia. Find out more on Kate's Blog.