Archetypes and groundbreakers

My friend Ross Bagby says that landmark characters/films/books come in two forms: The groundbreaker and the archetype.
The groundbreaker is the one that establishes the genre or the formula. The archetype is the one everyone remembers.
Sometimes they’re the same. Superman was the first comic-book super-hero and he’s still the one everyone knows. Conan is still the definitive sword and sorcery hero.
Sometimes they’re not. Quality Comics’ Uncle Sam was the first of the Golden Age’s many, many red white and blue super-heroes, but Captain America became the archetype. Uncommon Valor was the first film to tackle the question of POWs still held in Vietnam, but the only one of that short-lived genre anyone remembers is Rambo.
Neither Fu Manchu nor Sherlock Holmes were the first of their breed (Yellow Peril mastermind and private detective, respectively) but they so completely eclipsed their predecessors—and most of their imitators—that it’s hard to realize that.
Which is the thing about archetypes: They have a magic, an energy, a something, that the competition just doesn’t have. Whether it’s the creator or the concept or the stories, they stand out head and shoulders above the pack (though I’ll make the obvious point that no character works for every reader). There are lots of detectives from the Holmes era that I enjoy, all entertaining and well written, but none of them have the touch that makes Holmes Holmes. With Fu Manchu, I think it’s that Rohmer, despite his limits as a writer, did actually give him a personality (ruthless, murderous, but completely honorable and with end goals that weren’t totally evil) which few Yellow Peril villains actually had (just compare Boris Karloff as the leering sadist in Mask of Fu Manchu to the original).
I suppose the worst fate for a groundbreaker, though, isn’t to be eclipsed as much as to become formula. A lot of detective novels that were startling and clever in their day have now become so much part of the architecture of the genre, it’s impossible to read them today and not feel you’ve seen it all before.
Of course, if I happen to come up with a groundbreaker, I certainly won’t be crushed if 100 years from now, it’s had that kind of influence.


Filed under Movies, Reading

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