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The Cape's Endgame Offers Some Insights for the Neo-Pulp Moment

The Cape - Endgame - Video - NBC.com

The costumed crime fighter's return to primetime television with The Cape did not prove a draw for the television audience. For all the emphases on superheroes in popular media, those heroes, at least on television, have shied away from costumes. Non costumed crime fighting dramas (or melodrama) provide the function associated with superheroes, but not the comic book form. The "No capes" approaches frees television shows from the stigma associated with superhero. The recent furor over Wonder Woman's costume in the forthcoming pilot for a propose new primetime show this fall highlights the difficulties associated with making a costume work for the viewing audience.

Why then, the effort to return the superhero costumed hero to the small screen? What, if any clues can we garner from The Cape's demise about the traction offered by superheroes in the public's mind?


The Cape
was a family friendly show about a wrongfully accused cop who takes on the persona of his son’s favorite comic book hero to clear his name and save “Palm City.” A genre show that draws on familiar themes, The Cape offered a fight for justice and an individual’s struggle against societal corruption. As with its big screen counterpart, The Green Hornet, The Cape returns places the pulp hero in the spotlight at a time when the value of individual agency is in question. This neo-pulp revival is both stimulated by and a reaction to social upheaval and economic uncertainty. Like superheroes, pulp characters offer a means to understand how U.S. society negotiates the continued belief in the American dream in the face of contemporary challenges to that idealize reality.

Superheroes’ costumes, powers, and dual identities serve as an externalization of the power, desires, and values that are deeply ingrained within U.S. culture. Reacting to the specter of domestic disorder and challenging globalization, the superhero reaffirms broad traditional ideas about United States. The decision to turn away from superpowers and embracing the pulp hero allows the U.S. audience to connect to the heroic journey in a different way. If, as we so often assume, the superhero is wish fulfillment, pulp heroes differ because of their humanity. Superman is an alien, Wonder Woman is a goddess, Spider-Man was bitten by a radioactive spider. In contrast, the pulp hero in its classic form provided a vision of common man empowering self to achieve justice. Pulp heroes allowed the audience to link their economic problems, dissatisfaction with societal corruption, and fears about familial jeopardy to an everyman hero. The pulp hero's struggles connect to the audience in a way a super-powered protagonist cannot.


Origins




The pulp magazine era began with the publication of Argosy Magazine (1896), the first all-fiction pulp magazine. By the late nineteenth century the magazines printed on better paper offering serious content were known as "glossies" or "slicks" while the pulps were known for their fast-paced, lurid, and sensational stories. The term "pulp" came from the cheap wood paper used to print the magazine, but became synonymous with the science fiction, romance, horror, and other genre stories found in their pages. For all their far-fetched elements, pulp publications also succeeded in echoing the general public’s hopes and fears associated with the shift from a nineteenth century agrarian life to an urban-centered twentieth century reality. The pulp hero both mirrored nostalgia for the past by maintaining the self-directed, values-oriented hero, but acknowledged the future by offering adventure stories framed by encounters on a global scale with culturally dissimilar and ethnically diverse populations. The white male hero triumphed, but his adventures informed the reader of a changing and dynamic world.


The pulp heroes of the 1930s redefined the frontier hero so important to the U.S. experience. A white male, the pulp hero rejects the corruption of society and take it upon himself to correct societal problems. While mission, powers, identity, costumes, and codename have been used to identify the superhero, the pulp hero differed because of his lack of superpowers. The Shadow, The Spider, and The Phantom Detective were all WASPish pulp heroes who symbolized these traits. They pursued evildoers using superior physical and mental abilities to outthink and outfight their opponents. As proto-superheroes, these characters have many of the traits of the superhero. The Spider dressed in a hideous manner and used a “Spider Ring” that marked his opponents. Indeed, pulp characters ability expanded along with their popularity. While the original published version of The Shadow used subtle misdirection, in the radio version the character could “cloud men’s minds.” Pulp magazine writers offered increasingly fantastic hero, capable of overcoming seemly impossible obstacles in response to the harshness of the Great Depression and the rising specter of global war in the late 1930s.

Neo-Pulp Resurgence


The eventual emergence of the superhero fulfilled this escalation. Nonetheless, the pulp form continued on in Golden Age comic characters such as Batman, The Clock, and Black Bat. The appeal of the ordinary man training himself (women can do it, but the form remains dominated by men) to fight against evil follows the national mood. It’s no surprise, then, that the revival of pulp characters in comics, movies, and television comes in the midst of uncertain foreign wars and the aftermath of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression. The current series of Batman films directed by Christopher Nolan highlights this fact. Batman offers crucial reassurance about contemporary societal concerns. Batman has always been about what one dedicated man can do to save the community. The character’s core symbolism refashions established folk narratives about frontier vigilantes celebrated in literature and film. Although a new creation, The Cape borrows from the essential elements of pulp characters to provide a hero for modern times.

Vince Faraday (The Cape) is a husband and father fighting to return to his family. A heroic figure whose ultimate reward will be domestic bliss, the emotional payoff for the character and the audience is familial security. Faraday is fighting to protect them and by extension all of us. The show’s creator, Thomas Wheeler made it clear that he wanted a comic book show, one grounded in the iconic imagery and symbols associated with the form, but one more accessible for the audience. The voluminous marketing campaign associated with the show set the urban locale, the colorful characters, and the clear villainous obstacles that mark the show as superhero adventure. These elements are iconic, but the show is also current, referencing concerns and fears informed by the economic, social, and political disquiet facing the United States in 2011.

Whether heroes or villains, the show used current issues to add punch to pulp tropes. For allies, Faraday’s Cape relied on Max Malini (Keith David) the ringleader of a gang of bank robbers/circus performers. It is Malini (along with the gang) who will mentor, train, and support Faraday. At the same time, Faraday’s heroic journey challenge and in some ways redeem his allies. The use of circus performers harkens back to origins of pulp and superhero iconography in the United States. Circus performers provided the visual cues for the costumes and framework for the abilities that define the pulp hero. Moreover, the circus’ folk identity as place where reinvention and escape are realize serves to reinforce the character’s journey and transformation. Beyond that reference, The Cape further recalibrated other pulp tropes. Summer Glau’s Orwell updates the crusading reporter persona from the pulp era. Glau plays an investigative blogger who joins The Cape to wage war on crime. Part of the marketing campaign leading up to the show’s premiere relied on a viral website www.orwelliswatching.com to add to the show’s mythology. Glau, of course, is a familiar face for genre fans. Her previous appearances on Firefly and The Sarah Connor Chronicles added geek appeal to the show, but her character, a blogger, highlights the transformation of our media culture. Newspapers struggle, thus the polarizing figure of the blogger serves to mark the show’s modernity. At the same time, a crusading female journalist adds a female character with agency to a genre that could easily sidelines women’s agency. Countless, crusading male reporters can be found in the pages of classic pulp stories, so by changing the gender and bringing in a recognizable star, the show offered a role model, along with Faraday's wife that demonstrated women as active participants driving the show's narrative. Indeed, Faraday's wife decision to return to her job as a lawyer and join the public defender's office provides a poetic symmetry to their relationship. They both fight for the oppressed in their own way.

Palm City, the setting for show, is intended to be a kaleidoscopic urban landscape referencing Los Angeles at its core, but other cities as well. One clear element in the show was that municipal inefficiency (or failure) played a major role in Faraday’s transformation into The Cape. In the show Palm City is suffering from corruption, and the failure of municipal authorities, whatever the cause, opens the door to attempts by the ARK Corporation to privatized police service. The show used black shirted (of course) security personnel and Peter Fleming (James Frain), the CEO and owner of ARK doubled as the shows main villain (called Chess). The concept of the corporation as a source of corruption is not a new idea, but the decision to merge this with a pulp hero for this program serves to crystallize popular sentiment against corporations and their crimes against the common people. The fact that many American feel that corporate executives have not been brought to justice for their failures only makes the hero’s confrontation of these villains more satisfying for the viewing audience. Every victory should be sweeter, and the eventual triumph for the hero affirming. The Cape’s crusade to defeat Fleming served as one, but not the only, orienting narrative for the show. The hero’s one-man war against corruption stresses the personal nature of oppression Americans feel in the face of corporate power. Yet, Faraday's Cape was suppose to inspire action.

The Cape continued the trend of the costume hero acting as a symbolic tool, but the emphasis on a hero without superpowers is a subtle acknowledgement of contemporary anxiety about the stability in our world. The message, however, is unclear. Despite the challenges we face in contemporary U.S. society, the key to success, U.S. audience still seem to struggle with the solution. Does a better future lie with continued adherence to traditional values? Does the U.S. need to embrace new, more radical tools to achieve success?

The neo-pulp hero actually allows the audience to see these two views and the values associate with them with greater clarity. Adding a gritty human context to hero’s journey enables the audience to interpose their struggle onto the hero's enemies. The masked hero is given license to act to defeat the worries facing our collective psyche. Yet, like his pulp predecessors, The Cape's power does not seem great enough to overcome the entrench nature of societal failure. He can fight to good fight, but the system may not care. The Cape's slow slide in the rating isn't symbolic of greater societal failure, yet the heroic ideals linked to the pulp hero can only go so far. When the problems seem beyond our abilities, we look to those with capacity greater than our own. The superhero may be alienating to some, but the dedication to protect and power to succeed are seductive tropes.

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