Improvement vs. Preservation: Comparing the fictional character-based involvements of Genetics in Literary Romanticism and the Silver Age of comic books

Harry Underwood
Final paper
Hon. Amer. Lit.
April 17, 2009

Improvement vs. Preservation: Comparing the fictional character-based involvements of Genetics in Literary Romanticism and the Silver Age of comic books

Due to technological improvement, literature has proven to be a constantly evolving artistic format. For thousands of years, it has been transmitted through such methods as

  • oral, peer-to-peer transmission

  • typographic and ideographic records in ink

  • graphically- or sculpturally-intensive depictions of events

  • replicating printings of both typographic records and graphic depictions

  • electronically-computerized archives and revisions of such printings.

Such methods have also evolved in tandem with the development of newer schools of thought and practices in other aspects of human history, such as religion, politics and science. In the case of the transition from the Age of Enlightenment to the Age of Romanticism in the early-to-mid-19th century, the focus of most philosophical and literary proceedings was upon the human individual’s relationship with the natural, the supernatural and the scientific. In the case of the comic book industry’s transition from the Golden Age to the Silver Age in the early-to-mid-20th century, such focus was paid to the human individual’s integration (by chance or by deliberate action) of additional natural, supernatural and scientifically-engineered features as biological or semi-biological components of the individual’s body structure and, in most cases, personality. It is with this in mind that comparisons and contrasts can be found between the period of literary transition from the Age of Enlightenment to Romanticism and the period of transition from the Golden Age to the Silver Age. In particular, the focus for such comparisons is best directed to the involvement of genetics and other biological sciences in the construction of fictional characters and their respective fictional histories.

The usage of genetic research and exploitation for human advancement has long been a controversial topic in the Western world since the field of genetics was opened for exploration in the 19th century due to religious and political concerns. Furthermore, the topic of human diversity and equality, and the improvement of such concepts in their applications, has also overlapped with such scientific disciplines as genetics.

The Age of Enlightenment, which is generally dated in its span from the middle of the 17th century to the beginning of the 19th century, is most recognized for its promotion and elevation of reason, freedom and intellect as the main source of human existence, institutions and achievement. During this period, philosophy became more divorced from religion and more tied to the advancement of the sciences, which were also becoming increasingly divorced from religion and mysticism; this increasingly-scientific view of the world and its contents as espoused during the Age of Enlightenment would manifest itself in the literary arts, where primary concern was centered around social upheaval, institutional revolution and exploration of far-flung geographic territories, with a general deprecation of the values of religion and sentiment to merely-superficial levels of regard or emphasis. The fictional characters in such literature, while not entirely godless, atheistic or patriotic, were primarily used by their authors to deprecate or satirize the importance of such institutions as religion, the European monarchies or the upper classes; they were also used to deprecate the importance of social rigidity and personal adherence to previously-formulated standards and formalities which served little-to-no function and yielded no benefit to the performer. To the writers, such importances were merely dangerous delusions which, contrary to the aims of the institutions’ preservers, were merely of individual, equally deluded origins and were foisted upon the greater population without considerations for their proper applications within the larger human environment.

The latter part of the Enlightenment, however, overlapped with the beginnings of what became known as the period of Romanticism, a cultural movement that was largely a reaction against the Enlightenment’s perceived philosophical excesses. The writers of this period sought for a return to the institutions and personal features which elevated human experiences and ideals – for good or for ill – to lofty, spiritually-entrancing levels; it also symbolized a rejection of the humanism and rationalism of the Enlightenment, in which cultural standards were configured to be based upon their comparative benefit to the whole of humanity, its individual members and its subgroups more than to the gratification or fulfillment of any given spiritual law or authority. The Romanticists, while retaining some of the individualist focus that was present in the Enlightenment, revisited and extolled spiritual or transcendental experiences within the realm of individual experiences which could only apply – or even be revealed through access to the senses – to the individuals who played party to the experiences; the repertoire of individual characters presented in the more-poetically-inclined Romanticist literature were split between mundane creatures who happened to have been visited by supernatural occurrences or flaws which were biologically tailored to suit their own particular situations and the intellectually-inclined, short-sighted individuals who sought to overcome such flaws or obstacles through the engineering of scientific (or even pseudo-scientific) schemes. As per their philosophy of untamed human diversity and individuality, the Romanticists depicted the short-sighted intellectuals in a more-deprecatory light, albeit not usually gravitating to depictions of such individuals as morally depraved or repugnant.

The Golden Age of comic books, beginning in the 1930’s and ending around the 1940’s, is seen as the first great heyday of the comic book industry. While it was far from the dominating player in the field, DC Comics probably accrued the greatest degree of association and synonymity with this period’s literary output, as the company’s flagship characters such as Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Captain America and Wonder Woman all achieved extensive recognition during this period for the DC brand that would continue to pay off to the present day DC’s own forays into various multimedia approaches involving such characters. This period witnessed the development of characters who possessed “superpowers”, or physical abilities which were not within the real-world possession of any single Earth-born individual; this also led to the designation of characters in possession of such powers as “superheroes” and “supervillains”. The superheroes, most of whom were forced by necessity to create alternate identities in order to accommodate separations between their lives as mundane, wage-laboring human beings and their lives as superpower-wielding personalities, were imbued with a formidable variety of superpowers which virtually ensured that, no matter how dire the crisis may have looked to the reader, the hero would be able to use his arsenal of superpowers to trounce his current foe and save the day for the city’s dwellers. They were also fitted by their authors with fictional histories which placed their origins in places far removed from the present, realistic Earth: Siegel and Shuster’s Superman was sent to the Earth as the sole survivor of the destruction of his home planet Krypton, Wonder Woman was the daughter of the all-female Amazons, Green Lantern attained his powers by a rechargeable magical ring, and so on.

However, the Silver Age of the industry, which began in the 1950’s and ended in the mid-1960’s, would revolutionize the development of superheroes, supervillains and their fictional histories and characteristics. Following the end of World War II, the establishment of the Comic Code Authority for the establishment of literary limits in comic book publications, and shakeups in the authorship of the most popular superhero franchises, the Silver Age heralded the establishment of numerous tropes which would become de-facto standards in future historic ages of the industry. Besides the creation of fictional collectives of superheroes and supervillains, an upstart publisher by the name of Marvel Comics would, with their publication of the Fantastic Four, spearhead the promulgation of a new breed of supercharacter, one that, rather than having derived their origins from another planet’s own advanced civilization, Earth-derived mythological bearings or merely supernatural or magical realities, was instead mostly derived from mundane, locally-derived human beings who merely came into contact with scientifically-derived accidents which mutated the characters into beings who possessed capabilities that most other humans wouldn’t realistically possess or wield. Furthermore, in comparison to the inhuman flawlessness and higher morality of the Golden Age’s supercharacters, the Silver Age’s supercharacters would still retain their human flaws and would come into personal conflict with their superpowered compatriots with a much more pronounced sense of self-interest. As a result, even the delineation between superhero and supervillain was blurred, as each group was shown to be capable of saving or destroying the world, themselves or their compatriots with the wielding of their superpowers; the logical extension of this blurring of delineation is the comparatively-vulnerable fictional public’s increasing ambivalence towards, or even outright hatred of, all such supercharacters (such-abled heroes and villains alike), and storylines for such comics were increasingly invested into the redevelopment of supercharacters from moral standardizers and role models (or, in the case of supervillains, the negations of such roles and the monopolizers of any involvement of self-interest within the storyline) into amoral, erstwhile social outcasts and lightning rods for controversy and populist, anti-accomodationist political or vigilante movements. This entry of science fiction into the comic book industry’s repertoire of constructed histories, while promulgated in earnest by Marvel’s own Fantastic Four, X-Men, and Spider-Man franchises, would also deeply affect the franchises of DC Comics, which preceded Marvel in its adaption of science fiction elements into its character history repertoire by the introduction of The Flash, a young man who is mutated by a chemical accident into a masked man who wields his exhilaratingly-superhuman running speed into any situation, and the re-invention of the Green Lantern from being a magic-ring-wielding crusader to an Air Force serviceman and test pilot who happened to be in the area when a dying stray extraterrestrial member of the Green Lantern Corps bequeaths a “power ring” to him, making him the Earth member of the Green Lantern Corps.

Hence, the Romanticist period of Western literature and the Silver Age of comic book history both contributed in revolutionary ways to the development of fictional characters who were infused with characteristics and fictional histories which embraced elements of a scientific (or pseudoscientific) origin. While each age’s predecessor was more concerned with the moral standards and intellectual improvement of the general public (with the Golden Age, in particular, utilizing its superpowered characters as tools in order to affect such changes), the artisans of the Romantic and Silver Age literary periods generally adhered to the development of characters who, by chance or by deliberate action, departed from the norms set upon them by society and tip-toed the boundaries of the supernatural in order to learn lessons of a strictly-individual pertinence. The artisans of both periods also showed a greater proclivity to reshape such boundaries and address, with a deprecatory but clearly-fascinated tone, the supposed dangers of the use of scientifically-originated methods, such as chemical engineering, in order to affect the greater society’s own ills.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, a 19th-century American writer who is regarded as one of the foremost writers of the Romantic period, is also regarded as having been a pioneer in the development of science fiction as a literary genre. His 1844 short story, Rappaccini’s Daughter, details the story of a fresh arrival to the University of Padua, a young student named Giovanni, who is drawn to the allure of a young woman, Beatrice, who lives with her father, an eminent professor of the sciences at the university, and spends most of her days in the secluded gardens of the professor’s estate; while he is smitten with love for the woman, the story begins to take a turn for the worse when the main character’s mentor, Professor Baglioni, warns him that Professor Rappaccini is up to no good with his experiments, which happen to involve the poisonous plants which predominate in the gardens of his estate. Being given Baglioni’s vial of unknown contents which are meant to be given to Beatrice, he then sneaks into the forbidden garden and comes face to face with Beatrice, only to then realize that she is a living vessel of poison who poisons everyone whom she touches; worse yet, his excursion into the gardens results in his mutation into a living vessel of biotoxic poison by way of merely breathing the air of the plants engineered by Professor Rappaccini. He confronts Beatrice, who then confronts her father, who then reveals that both Beatrice (from intravenous feeds of poisonous foods from birth) and Giovanni (by respiratory intake of the poisonous plants) have been mutated in ways which set them, as a couple, apart from the whole of humanity, and that such mutations are a blessing to their mutual fidelity and individual integrity in that they are nontoxic to each other, but deadly to the touch for every other living being on the planet; the professor, in his experimentation with Beatrice, sought to engineer an ideal, powerful child imbued with “marvelous gifts, against which no power nor strength could avail an enemy.”

Parallels of, or homages to, Hawthorne’s own narrative have been present within the creation of characters, storylines and fictional histories of such characters in the comic book industry since the Silver Age. For instance, DC Comics villainess Poison Ivy, an environmental activist and eco-terrorist who is immune to all toxins, bacteria, and viruses but (through her own deliberate self-infusions) can inflict poisonous wounds upon others by mere skin contact, is primarily depicted as an individual who combines human DNA with plant DNA for various nefarious effects, ranging from the transformation of unsuspecting characters into trees or plants to the creation of plant-based monsters which fulfill her bidding to the lacing of public utilities with engineered biotoxins to bring disruption to the general public’s welfare. Also, despite having been created in the Modern Age of comic books, the fictional history of Marvel Comics’ Camilla Black (a.k.a. Scorpion, a superheroine) is also fairly comparable to Hawthorne’s Beatrice Rappaccini in having inherited much of the Silver Age’s science-fiction-oriented legacy in character development; similarly to Beatrice’s own background, Camilla was the result of an experiment by her “mother”, a biogeneticist and terrorist named Monica Rappaccini, which sought to create a child who possessed powers that would allow her to defeat any foe with the slightest touch or breath of air.

However, with the many parallels between the Romanticist period of Western literature and the Silver Age of Western comic books, a number of differences are detectable between the two period’s approaches to the topic of scientifically-originated methods of engineering and exploitation.

Thus, while both the Age of Romanticism and the Silver Age are relatively comparable and contrastable in their concepts and tactics, the results and legacies of both periods have left severe, indelible features upon their successors and upon the field of the social sciences.