The title of the blog comes from a, perhaps obscure, piece of mathematics. Mathematically speaking aleph zero – which we write \(\displaystyle \aleph_0\) – is the cardinality of the set of natural numbers, which is a pretty mathsy way of saying “infinity”. So the name, aleph-zero-heroes, loosely translates as infinite heroes.
I don’t just care about superheroes – more broadly they are a archetype that comes up frequently in the context of hybrid narratives, and that is what I want to tap into.
To explain what, why and so on of all this, see below.
The capacity that sets humans apart from the animal kingdom is not our ability to use tools (there are animals, even birds that also use tools); or our ability to communicate (many animals speak to each other); or our ability to form complex social bonds (some animals bond for life). Human’s are unique in our ability and desire to tell stories.
Myths, legends, narratives, and fictions allow us to build larger social constructs than Dunbar’s number (around 150). Stories are part of how we plan ahead. Stories allow us to change and adapt as a species more quickly than our the genetic heritage of most species. Stories have made us the dominant species on the planet is the blink of an eye (on evolutionary time scales).
So if stories are what make us who we are, then they are worth studying. I’m a mathematician by training, but a data scientist in practice, so that’s the approach to the analysis of stories that I am inevitably going to adopt, and there is an increasing amount of effort going into “narrative analysis” both of fiction and non-fiction (e.g., distant reading of historical source materials). Mathematics, statistics and computer science – the basis of data science – are crucial to that analysis.
I could look at any sort of stories, why focus on superheroes? Because I’m interested in a particular phenomena — large-scale hybrids. I’ll describe them in more detail below, but we could have chosen to do Harry Potter, so why superheroes in particular? I guess that reflects my personal biases, but also superheroes are a big part of modern popular culture and have been for longer than Harry Potter. The idea behind superheroes isn’t really a new thing at all, so I see them as a richer, and more evolved phenomena.
Formally, we might trace the idea back to Nietzsche, but the modern comic superhero really dates from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in the 30s, right around the time of the invention of the comic book (Superman, Action Comics #1). The two things were synergistic.
However, the superhero is just a modernisation of the hero of any number of myths and legends. Classical mythology is replete with heroes with special powers. They may not have been “mutants”, but they usually got their powers through good genes — a typical hero was often a descendent of a God (or two).
Many comics books take inspiration directly from mythology (Wonder Woman, Thor, Thanos, …). Others create an all-new story (a radioactive spider bite couldn’t be a thing until we had radiation); even when they arise independently they often evolve towards common story elements.
The hero, goes through a journey, usually hits some nadir, and then is reborn. And he takes what he learns in the journey towards his eventual victory – sounds like Iron Man 1 to me?
Villains of classical mythology are too often victims of their own hubris. That sounds like many a mad scientist to me.
A hero seeks revenge for a murdered father. Is that Batman or Orestes? Of course, Bruce Wayne didn’t need to extend his revenge to his mother as well. So he was lucky. Really.
Other parallels include:
Superman has his Achilles heel.
Achilles warriors were called Myrmidons = Ant-men.
Gilgamesh, a demi-god and initially an arrogant king or prince of his city state (Thor?) meets a wild-man Enkidu (The Hulk), and after fighting each other to a stand still they bond and have adventures together.
Deadpool – a cosmic fool if ever there was.
Arthur and his round table = the Justice League?
And Superman was found in a reed basket on a river bank, or was that Moses?
More important than the parallels of particular characters or stories is the fact that comics-book heroes serve many of the same functions as the characters from legend. They provide a shared cultural experience, important parts of which are aimed at forming common cultural concepts such as morality by providing super-real role models and assigning them dilemmas that we can all understand.
And some of the stories are deadly serious. Watchman is Alan Moore’s magnum opus, and a modern 1984. It’s a brilliant story about human frailty, and the evils of good intentions, and the horror of war, all wrapped around a satire on caped crusaders.
I don’t know if he ever read comics, but I think Joseph Campbell would have been at home there. He understood the parallels between the hero myths of different cultures. He would have understood the modern parallels as well.
Given their connection to cultural norms comics also form a barometer for our culture. That might be worrying: comics are well-known to have strong gender and racial biases (though the situation is improving I think).
Or the barometer might be encouraging: a common theme in many comics is a (perhaps guarded) optimism about the future.
And in between there are some interesting cultural quirks: there was a lot more sex in classical mythology than in the mainstream comics and their associated movies. Modern heroes are often chaste, or at least sex happens behind closed doors. That is perhaps another reflection of the mix of new puritanism that is a strong undercurrent of the modern West.
So don’t write superheroes off as “escapist”. And even if that’s what you want to call ‘em, then listen to Neil Gaiman:
…escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.
As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.” ― Neil Gaiman, The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction
However, I don’t plan to restrict myself unduly. If I see something interesting that I think is related, I’m going to look at that, regardless of lack of superhero content. Firefly isn’t a series about superheroes, but if I can, I definitely want to look there. And there are some non-fiction texts I want to get to eventually, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise.
Finally, I don’t know enough of this stuff. I don’t know enough about writing. I don’t know enough social science or digital humanities, and although I was brought up with the Greeks and Romans in my house (and the Norse next door) there are whole swathes of world mythology I know only peripherally. If nothing else, this blog is a chance for me to learn more.
A story is the sequence of events. A narrative is how you tell it. Traditional narratives took the form of oral tellings, written works, theatre, and so on.
A hybrid narrative involves multiple forms of story telling blended together. We can get an idea by considering simple examples of old-school hybrids
- picture books and graphic novels, which combine art and text
- choose your own adventure books, which combine games with prose
The relatively low-cost, “pulp” nature of comics allowed their authors and artists to do new things, to experiment. Comics then folded back into other forms of story telling, the superhero movie genre being the most obvious. And the web has made it easy to create other hybrids, increasing the pace of innovation.
Why large-scale hybrid narratives? It’s only recently that it’s been possible to create these. Logistical, technical and economic constraints have prevented really large-scale hybrids in the past. Stories this large, that reach millions of people, must be an interesting reflection on our world. So in this blog, we are not just interested in simple hybrid texts, for example a graphic novel. We are interested in the massive hybrids created in response to popular demand, and facilitated by technology.
For instance, graphic novels have inspired a new genre of movies – superhero movies – and these have become massively popular. But where once these were single, throw-away movies, now they form their own ecosystems of movies and other classes of media and don’t forget the vast amounts of fan fiction and commentary. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is a great example of this.
In these ecosystems, novels or graphic novels inspire movies, which in turn spin off games, and TV series, and traditional novels, and new graphic novels. The MCU might be the best example, but DC is following close behind and we can think about the Star Wars or Harry Potter franchises in the same way. And don’t be surprised to see more following suit. These franchises are worth a lot of money. The MCU movies alone have generated nearly $20 billion. I’m not sure anyone outside of Marvel knows what the whole franchise is worth.
It would be careless to then write these off as simple action movies without thinking a little more deeply about how they mirror our society, and in turn affect it.
I work mostly on networks, so that’s the type of analysis you will see a bit of here, but networks touch on everything so there’s going to be bits and pieces from everywhere.
If you want to see some examples of what people are doing with networks, have a look at the following:
“Marvel Universe looks almost like a real social network” in which the authors argue that the network created by linking characters who share a comic has many of the characteristics of real-life, human social networks.
“How to become a superhero” is similar, but goes a little further.
“Network analysis of the Íslendinga sögur – the Sagas of Icelanders” in which the authors examine the network of characters in the Icelandic sagas, again comparing them to real social networks.
“Universal properties of mythological networks” in which the authors compare the networks of characters in a set of mythology texts (Beowulf, the Iliad and the Táin Bó Cuailnge). Again they find parallels. These authors have a nice visualisation of one of the networks they are dealing with.
And Game of Thrones is featured in “Network of Thrones” and “Another Game of Thrones network analysis” is perhaps the best known example, because of the popularity of Game of Thrones, but also because Kaggle released a dataset.
The finding of universal properties in our narratives is a big part of what motivates this blog, but network analyses are often focused on empirical measurements of network features, and I am hoping to go a little further.
At the same time there is increasing interest in getting to these corpora without messing around manually: e.g.,
and our own recent effort
I’m learning Julia these days, so I thought there was an opportunity to use this as a project to learn Julia, so expect lots of this, though some Python or Perl may creep in at some point. If you don’t know anything about Julia then look it up. It’s cool!
And I’m a mathematician by training, so there will be some emphasis on math as we progress, but it’s going to take a little while to build, so we’ll start with code and data.
Every couple of weeks, though it may start fast and slow down as a realise how much work is involved :)
I’m a Prof at the University of Adelaide1 (in Adelaide, South Australia), and a Chief Investigator in ACEMS (The Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Mathematical and Statistical Frontiers).
- Don't tell them I have a web page -- they'll replace it with a marketing video. ↩