Over a decade into the 21st Century, our imaginations are captivated by creations of the 19th and 20th. Sherlock Holmes rules television and movies. We're eagerly awaiting new movies about James Bond, Captain Kirk, Superman, Batman and Spider-Man. Where are the 21st Century mass-media heroes and villains? Why isn't anybody even trying to create them?
Part of the answer is that almost all of our truly mainstream heroes and monsters arose from pulpy mass media, created cheaply at the start of a genre's lifespan. To create new giant heroes, you need a new pulp. And new genres.
Top image: JLA/Avengers.
I'll admit up front that I think about this sort of thing way too much, but here goes. In the last generation, I'd argue that only one truly iconic hero or villain has been created: Harry Potter (and, to a lesser extent, his nemesis Voldemort.) Potter's 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. (And of course, the longer Harry goes without new books or movies, the more likely that is to change.)
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.
Is Pulp Over?
To some extent, this is because the media landscape has changed so much in the past few decades. Media companies have become much bigger and more consolidated, and most of those great well-known characters are corporate IP. It's hard to understate the role of years of Happy Meal packaging and television ads in making characters stick in your mind. Plus, with the rise of CG effects, any really epic hero is going to be expensive to create. (And thus, any attempt at creating one from scratch will probably be bland as hell, because of the need to try and ensure a good ROI by appealing to all four quadrants.)
But that really doesn't matter — because the great famous heroes, villains and monsters have always come out of pulp. And that will continue to be true, even if the types of media that we consider "pulp" keep changing.
Nobody creates an enduring hero or monster for a prestige format — something that's labeled as a collector's item or considered highbrow. No great cultural icon will ever be published originally in hardcover or fancy trade paperback. And no huge new character will be created for a $300 million Hollywood movie, for the reasons mentioned above.
A new pulp narrative can't include a heavy dose of irony or detachment, or anything aimed at distancing people from the pure rush of escapism and wish-fulfillment in the story. That's why Harry Potter is so compelling — he's like a pure nugget of wish-fulfillment.
Also helpful: Simplistic moralism, in which there are good guys and bad guys, and you can mostly tell them apart. Unless the bad guys wear a cunning disguise.
Even Batman Will Fade
And here's the thing — we're going to need some new pulpy heroes and villains at some point, because these characters have a shelf life. They outlive the disposable, cheaply made source material, but that doesn't mean they'll live forever. Sure, Superman and Batman have already outlived their contemporaries, like the Fighting American or The Fly.
But one day — quite possibly in your lifetime — Superman will be a character that only older people and uberfans really know much about. Just look at Doc Savage and The Shadow. Who really remembers Tarzan now? (There's been a lot of talk about the fact that John Carter is not as well known as Tarzan, but I'm not convinced that Tarzan is well known either. Not among people under the age of 30, anyway.) It seems unlikely that most characters can last beyond about 100 years, give or take. Image via Super-Team Family: The Lost Issues.
Yes, even Batman will be largely forgotten, at some point. Maybe in your lifetime. Sorry.
So you need new cult icons to replace the old ones. And that, in turn, probably needs a new cultural moment like the rise of superhero comics in the late 1930s, or the Silver Age, or the rise of dime novels. Or a new form of serialized narrative, since epic heroes often seem to thrive in serialization. We need new pulp: cheap, popular, and looked down upon by the tastemakers.
A Post-Heroic Era?
The alternative, of course, is to believe that we live in a post-heroic era. There's certainly plenty of evidence of that — Twilight is fundamentally a personal story, in which heroism is defined in terms of fighting for your loved ones, rather than any larger stakes. Other fantasy narratives, like Game of Thrones, call heroism and "knightly" virtues into question, while exploring a kind of moral grayness.
A lot of recent superhero movies and TV shows have been about egotists who fight personal squabbles. There's the pervasive meme that supervillains only exist in response to superheroes, and if the superheroes just went away, the heroes would too. Weak villains cheapen the heroes by default. (Litmus test: if the hero gives up, does the villain no longer pose a threat to anybody?)
But I refuse to believe that we're no longer ready to believe in heroism or sacrifice for a greater good — and the popularity of Harry Potter seems to prove otherwise.
What's Pulp Now?
To some extent, children's books were a kind of pulp fiction when Harry Potter first broke out. At least, there was a lot of talk at the time about how surprising it was that a children's book became such a huge mainstream phenomenon. But now, children's books and young-adult fiction have become a more recognized venue for authors to break out in, and books routinely get huge movie deals before they're even published.
Print comics, meanwhile, haven't been pulp for decades. In fact, rising paper costs and atrophying distribution channels mean that almost no print media can be considered "pulp" at this point — with the possible exception of romance novels, especially Paranormal Romance and other odd subgenres like Amish Romance. I love that Amish Romance is a huge business, with tons of avid readers. Image via Terry McCombs on Flickr.
So what is pulp now? It's hard to say, but there are a few things that come to mind. Self-published books, including e-books, are reaching the point where an author can sell a book cheaply and move tons of copies, if he or she is a relentless enough self-promoter. There's the afore-mentioned romance books, still sold in Wal-Mart and some drug stores. There are kiddie cartoons — no serious people respect Ben 10, but it's beloved by kids and some adults. Webseries and webcomics. Maybe "found footage" movies. Anything cheap to make and popular, yet despised.
Actually, reality TV is probably the pulp media of our time, which probably explains right there why we haven't been growing new heroes and villains — reality TV is the ultimate anti-heroic medium. Its "heroes" are Snooki and The Situation. I don't know how you'd even go about creating a genuinely heroic narrative in reality TV, even given the fact that the "reality" is totally fake. I'm scared you'd end up with another Who Wants To Be a Superhero? Shudder.
So if you want to create the next Harry Potter or Batman, the key is to find a pulp medium that hasn't been flooded with other wannabe Bob Kanes and J.K. Rowlings. A medium that's genuinely popular but low-prestige. Hint: Any medium that people are trying to "break into" is not pulp. If people go to grad school so they can work in that medium, or get internships so they can work in that medium, it's not pulp. It's only pulp if people in the fancy journals curl their lips at it.
Besides a new, emerging medium, you probably need a new genre — or at least a revamped one. Don't create a superhero or a wizard, do something new and bold. Pour all your longing for your work to matter into a character who matters, within her own universe. That's really the most important thing — your protagonist should be someone who really matters. Or the villain should be someone or something really stupendous. Think big.
And then find people who can help you promote your work, and probably take too big a share of the profits. Work your ass off and develop RSIs and vision problems, and stay up all night working on your creation, before going to your crappy day job. Bust your ass for years to get your creation in front of people. Keep deepening the mythology and adding to the wonder. You will probably fail. Good luck.