The idea of a genre trope is thought of as a series of motifs, clichés and rhetorical devices that help to define a genre and allows a reader to have some idea of what they are in for, before starting a story. As discussed in Film Art: An Introduction, “no genre can be defined in a single hard-and fast way. Some genres stand out by their subjects or themes” [Bordwell & Thompson.1979:109], going on to discuss Science-Fiction and Westerns. Bordwell and Thompson essentially come to the conclusion that the purpose of a genre is to provide “a way of finding a film they want to see” [Bordwell & Thompson.1970:110], that genre is typically decided by readers and reviewers based on repeated settings, character archetypes and themes. In the cases of both Marshal Law [Mills & O’Neill.1987] and Puella Magi Madoka Magica [Miyamoto & Shinbo.2011](Madoka Magica for brevity) they take specific genre tropes and expectations, Superhero and Magical girl respectfully, and defy expectations in order to comment on the genre as a whole.
The accepted definition for ‘superhero’ largely comes from the work of Peter Coogan in his essay, The Definition of the Superhero [Coogan.2009]. Coogan’s work fundamentally boils the elements of the Superhero genre down to four key points. Mission, Identity, Powers and Costume. Coogan’s thoughts regarding mission boil down to this; “the superhero’s mission is pro-social and selfless, which means that his fight against evil must fit in with the existing, professed mores of society and must not be intended to benefit or further his own agenda” [Coogan.2009:077]. This fits in well with traditional superheroes such as Superman, Batman and Captain America. Superman is a pillar of Truth, Justice and the American Way, by devoting his life to the betterment of those on his adopted world. This can be seen as early as his first appearance in Action Comics #1 [Siegel & Shuster.1938], and frequently reaffirmed even 80 years after its publication. Batman’s reason for being is to “avenge [the] deaths [of his parents] by spending the rest of [his] life warring on all criminals” [Kane & Finger.1939:02], a primary goal is to eradicate criminals so no child goes through what he went through. The idea of identity is summarised as the “element comprises the codename and the costume, with the secret identity being a customary counterpart to the codename” [Coogan.2009:078]. With Superman and Batman, there is a clear distinction between their hero identities and Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne. All-Star Superman [Morrison & Quietly.2008]artist, Frank Quietly, even goes to extensive lengths to show the difference in how Clark carries himself when in his civilian identity compared to Superman. For Powers, Coogan notes that “abilities are the heroes’ powers – or superpowers, to emphasize the exaggeration inherent in the superhero genre – and they are the first area of real difference between Superman and his pulp and science fiction predecessors”[Coogan.2009:078]. It’s notable that he does make reference to both powers and superpowers when it comes to superheroes. While Superman, who is mentioned here, is a superpowered being, capable of flight, super-speed, heat vision and other abilities. There are others within the Superhero genre, that do lack these abilities but are still considered above average such as Batman and his physical and mental superiority. When it comes to the Costume, this can be discussed in the same vain as identity and is explored well in the book The Superhero Costume [Brownie & Graydon.2016]. That “the relationship between dress and behaviour is so commonly understood that people will modify their behaviour to suit their clothes” [Brownie & Graydon.2016:034], for the case of Superheroes, their change in identity is completed by changing their clothing.
With 1987s Marshal Law, we see a number of these elements used to comment on the then current state of superhero fiction.
In Marshal Law, we see that superheroes, or at least superpowered beings exist primarily due to human experimentation. This created some of the first superpowered beings such as Public Spirit, however, the vast majority of superpowered beings are volunteers from a war known as The Zone. Years have now passed, and those veterans are now back in the general population complete with superpowers. Upon Marshal Law’s introduction in the first issue, he states to the audience “I’m a hero hunter. I hunt Heroes. Haven’t found any yet” [Mills & O’Neill.1987:13]. These words tell us three things about the world he lives in. That super-heroes, or at least heroes, exist, that the definition of a hero is more about having abilities rather than morality, and that Marshal Law feels there is no such thing as a true hero. Just from the opening issue, we see that this is true. The world is very dark, those with powers frequently misuse them for their own agenda. This is shown most heavily through the appearance of Sleep-Man. A Batman like figure dressed entirely in black and running across rooftops at night. When he comes across a young woman, scantily clad, alone and in a dangerous neighbourhood, instead of rescuing her, he decides to rape and murder her [Mills & O’Neill.1987]. When reading just the first few pages of Marshal Law, you are confronted by the stark reality that this is not going to be like your everyday Superhero story.
Marshal Law makes it very clear from it’s opening issue that just because these are people who have superhuman abilities and former war veterans, this does not mean they are good people or indeed heroes. As Marshal states, he hunts heroes but has not actually found any.
When it comes to costumes, with the exception of Public Spirit and perhaps Sleep-Man, the vast majority of ‘heroes’ contain characters that heavily lean towards the sexual. The sirens are sexual by nature, so show a lot of skin. Even minor characters such as Suicida of the Gangreen has the heavily suggestive statement “Nuke me slowly” across his chest [Mills & O’Neill.1987]. Marshal Law himself has a costume heavily reminiscent of the Leather Daddy role in BDSM, tight black leather, a policeman’s cap, chains and even barbed wire wrapped around his arm. The idea of clothes modifying someone’s behaviour can very much be seen in both Marshal Law, and the books primary antagonist, Sleep-Man. When home with his girlfriend, Marshal Law, real name Joe Gilmore, dresses in very ordinary clothing, A plain white t-shirt and jeans [Mills & O’Neill.1987]. With Sleep-Man, the difference is far more striking, especially as we get to know Sleep-Man’s secret identity before knowing they are the same person. His real identity, Danny, is straightforward and clean cut. Frequently shown in a police uniform and a central member of the police intelligence. The shocking fact that this same person also dresses in all black, with a paper bag over his head, elongated talons on each hand and enjoys murder and rape is also the young man who has been assisting Marshal is made more uncomfortable by the very innocent and straight laced persona we come to know in his secret identity [Mills & O’Neill.1987]. The idea that even those that seem like they have the best intention, can secretly be some of the vilest amongst us.
The stories own Superman stand-in, Public Spirit, while not Sleep-Man as Marshal initially thought, is still a genuinely bad person. It’s his actions that give rise to Sleep-Man in the first place as when Virago, Spirit’s fiancée, tells him she is pregnant, he decides to drown her so not to be tied down by a child and wife when his plan is to travel out in space. The fact that his efforts, though brutal, are unsuccessful leads to Sleep-Man [Mills & O’Neill.1987]. Mills and O’Neill make it very clear through the six issues that there is no such thing as a real Superhero. One that is both a hero and has superhuman abilities. Later works, such as Marshal Law: Kingdom of the Blind [Mills & O’Neill.1990] takes explicit aim at characters such as Batman with allegories such as Private Eye. Spouting lines such as “No, Old Chap. I’ve vowed I won’t sink to their level. I’ll maim, mutilate, electrocute, gas or burn them. But I won’t kill them” [Mills & O’Neill.1990], a harsh commentary on Batman’s own actions in his comics despite his vow never to kill.
The Magical Girl genre (Maho Shojo) could be considered an offshoot of the Superhero genre. Elements such as costume, identity, powers and even a specific mission can be seen as fundamental to the Magical Girl genre. However, it does include a few more specifics such as the protagonist (or protagonists) being young girls, typically pre-teen to young adult. Magical Girl stories also frequently contain the small, cute companion creature, as well as a transformation sequence helping to separate the hero’s everyday identity with their everyday identity [Clements.2013] [Lamarre.2009]. For the transformation sequence, this is frequently spurred on by some form of magical device that imparts the young girl with their abilities. In Sailor Moon [Sato.1992-1997], this takes the form of a Magical Brooch, or the magic wand in Magical Princess Minki Momo [Yuyama.1982-1983]. Traditionally the magical creature who accompanies the protagonist is also the one that bestows the protagonists with their abilities, such as Luna the magical black cat in Sailor Moon, or Cerberus (Kero), the small flying bear/lion hybrid that appoints Sakura the guardian of the Clow Cards in Cardcaptor Sakura [Asaka.1998-2000].
Madoka Magica presents itself, especially in it’s first episode as your typical Magical Girl show. Complete a Moe inspired art style [Galbraith.2014], and an advertising campaign that focus explicitly on the transformation sequences, the idea of fighting evil and the cute magical sidekick. The series plays into this heavily, even using a different end credits theme for the first episode. By episode three, when the first major death occurs, the rules that the audience, and even the characters though were in place thanks to this being a simple Magical Girl story are shattered. Initially each of the stories main characters are greeted, either on screen or off, by a magical being and given the opportunity to become Magical Girls. The choice of weather or not to accept the offer is one that looms heavily over the heads of the main cast, especially the titular Madoka.
In regards to the costume element, Madoka’s initial thoughts at the idea of becoming a real magical girl is to think about her outward appearance. While discussing the process with Sayaka and Mami in That Would be Truly Wonderful [Mukai.2011], Madoka presents a notebook she’s been sketching in all day with illustrations of herself in a bright flamboyant costume. Given Madoka’s own comments about not being especially brave, useful or smart, it’s likely she feels that she could not be of use to the world without the outward appearance of something otherworldly. In the book The Superhero Costume [Brownie & Graydon.2016], it’s noted that “the appearance of a costumed character immediately prompts the expectation of spectacular action, and anything less would be a disappointment” [Brownie & Graydon.2016:35]. This could also be thought of the other way around. That spectacular action must be accompanied by a costumed character. This could be compared with the opening episode of Cardcaptor Sakura, where Sakura uses her abilities for the first time, and hunts down the first of the Clow Cards entirely in her pyjamas [Asaka.1998], with later costumes being made by her close friend. The character of Homura also defies this idea in the episode I Won’t Rely on Anyone Anymore [Yase.2011] in which we see the previous timelines and the beginning of Homura’s journey. While Homura is primarily shown as an antagonistic figure very early on in the series, it is later revealed that she is from a completely separate timeline and has been reliving the same month over and over in order to save Madoka from the fate that befell her in her own timeline. At the point Homura becomes a Magical Girl and gains her costume and abilities, her skills or demeanour regarding battle don’t change. She’s still incredibly shy and unsure of herself. It’s only through experience and failure that she grows and changes. By the time we meet her in this final timeline, the only physical difference in her appearance is the removal of her glasses and that her hair is now down instead of tied back in pigtails. The physical costume stays the same.
Elements such as the magical cute companion are fulfilled in the form of Kyubey. A cat, rabbit hybrid type creature that appears to prospective Magical Girls to offer them abilities. Unlike creatures like Kero and Luna, it is specifically Kyubey offering them a deal. Kero is sealed within the Book of Clow and appoints Sakura the role of the it’s guardian because the books contents escape, and she is the one who opened the book in the first place. A situation born from circumstance. Luna gives Usagi the magical brooch because she is destined to wield it as a Sailor Scout. A situation born from fate.
With Kyubey, you have a creature that is looking specifically for teenager girls going through puberty in order to make a contract with them. While, the contract would allow the young girls to become Magical Girls, it also sealed the girls fate. By making a contract with Kyubey, the girls were allowed a single wish. The nature of this wish would inform what kind of abilities the Magical Girl has, but it also essentially acts as compensation for signing over their souls and one day becoming the very thing they are enlisted to hunt. The mission element of magical girls comes from fighting evil, or righting wrongs. Sailor Moon fights against the Queen Beryl and the Dark Kingdom. Sakura Kinomoto works to collect all the cards that escaped from the Book before the creatures inside wreak havoc on the world. With the Magical Girls of Madoka Magica, they have two overall missions, the one the girls assume, and the real reason Kyubey’s race creates Magical Girls. For the first six episodes of the series, the girls largely assume that their primary purpose is to defeat Witches. Misshapen creatures that feed on negative emotions and curse the unfortunate humans that get close to their labyrinths. In reality, and something not learnt by the girls until Episode 7, Can You Face Your True Feelings? [Kidokoro.2011] and especially in Episode 8, I was Stupid… So Stupid [Kawabata.2011] the witches are former Magical Girls. That the true reason Kyubey creates Magical Girls is to turn their souls into Soul Gems, the small trinket that up until now was thought of in the same manner as Sailor Moon’s brooch or Minki Momo’s wand. These Soul Gems become corrupted the more the girls use magic and from their own emotional instability. Once their Gems become corrupted, they become Greif Seeds and transform into witches. The reason for doing this is to collect the energy created from this act in order to counteract the heat death of the universe. The reason for sacrificing young girls is a fairly logical one to them. Due to puberty, young girls are the most emotionally unstable and therefore produce the most energy. Through this one reveal, Kyubey goes from just another magical girl sidekick such as Luna and Kero, and instead becomes a Faustian figure as the girls find themselves making a deal with the devil. Kyubey, being of a race that does not experience emotions, does not explain to the girls this fact simply because they did not ask about it. In essence, this could be considered Kyubey and the girls entering into a Devil’s Advocate type situation, where once all the information is laid out on the table, the girls are horrified to discover what they have actually agreed to.
Both Marshal Law and Madoka Magica lean heavily into genre conventions in order to explain some of the genres failings, or simply overlooked aspects that should be commentated on. With Marshal Law, you have a strong commentary on weather or not having superpowers and calling yourself a hero really does make you a ‘Super’ ‘Hero’. While with Madoka Magica you have a story that largely discusses weather you should trust an otherworldly figure offering power, even if it does seem to be for the greater good at first glance.
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