Master Of The Obvious: Issue #23

Wed, January 5th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

After my column on heroism a few weeks back, Lee Nordling, currently editor at Platinum Studios and my friend of many years, called me to say, "You talked about what you think heroism isn't, but you never said what you think it is!"

To clarify: heroism is any extraordinary, selfless act for the benefit of another life.

Which is why superheroes aren't really heroes at all. Extraordinary by nature, for them the extraordinary is ordinary. Heroism holds no innate sacrifice for them. There's no question they won't act heroically, even if they pull a little dodge now and then suggesting otherwise, because that's what passes for characterization and motivation in comics. We know they'll act heroically because they're the heroes, and we know they're the heroes because they choose not to be supervillains.

"... superheroes aren't really heroes at all. Extraordinary by nature, for them the extraordinary is ordinary. Heroism holds no innate sacrifice for them."

It's their job, and there are only three ways to make their situations reasonably hazardous: a) chance (Batman is inadvertently grazed by a random ricochet; b) they do something flat out stupid (Spider-Man ignores his spider-senses and gets stuck when he lands on the innocent looking, toffee-covered rooftop); or c) a threat is specially manufactured to challenge them (Thor drops the norn stones that turn Crusher Creel into The Absorbing Man, who can then absorb Thor's power and turn it against him; Galactus cruises in from space to eat the Earth).

It should be mentioned that there are virtually no comics heroes that aren't thinly disguised superheroes. Vertigo has made a career off them. What's John Constantine, if not a vaguely degenerate Dr. Strange who's nonetheless driven by a rigid, if personal, sense of morality and justice? Whatever Constantine's ostensible decadent motivations (or lack of them), he still leaps into the fray with Pavlovian reliability. Garth Ennis' Jesse Custer was never presented as anything but a superhero, complete with origin story, but Ennis dodged superheroism by simply ignoring Jesse's powers, and while Jesse's basically driven by the superhero impulse to do right, he also shows a broader than average range of response. (Ennis followed the same pattern with HITMAN, whose superpowered hero just never uses his superpowers.) The Sandman routinely stepped into situations at the critical moment, waved his hand, and solved all the problems. Only the mood and his end were unsuperheroic. Unable to overcome his limitations, he fell to them, in tragic hero mode.

Superheroes can't be tragic heroes unless they fail, and failure is the great taboo of comics. Our heroes are heroes because they overcome their limitations. Failure is always short term, the initial catalyst leading to the ultimate victory. (It mimics the old pattern of pro wrestling storylines in the days of regional promotions that would share performers. A star performer entering a territory would stay for three months, gaining a first match victory, usually via cheating, over the local hero, bringing the rematch a month later to a dead heat, and definitively losing to the local hero in the third month rematch to be "driven out" out of territory.) Our definitions are fairly simple: if they lose, they're not the hero.

The "heroism" of superhero comics almost always rings false. What we call heroism is a kneejerk shortcut for motivation so we can get to the fight scene quicker. It's a house-of-cards philosophy that started collapsing years ago, which is why Mark Waid can distinguish in THE FLASH between the "innocent" supervillains of yesteryear ("we only robbed, we were never out to kill civilians") and the homicidal maniacs common today. In the recent movie GALAXY QUEST, parodying Star Trek as a group of actors on a space show find themselves playing their roles in real life, a bit player named Guy (Sam Rockwell) virtually has a nervous breakdown as they descend to an unknown planet because he knows his nameless character, on the original show for 10 minutes, has to die to show how dangerous the situation is for the leads. This is the same reasoning that's led to the preponderance of psycho villains: they usually kill not because there's any particularly good reason for it, but to show how offhandedly they can do it, so the reader can at least presume there's some real jeopardy for the hero.

"What we call heroism is a kneejerk shortcut for motivation so we can get to the fight scene quicker."

But the mechanics of the endless monthly franchised comic book gut that. While there's some possibility that the heroes of low-selling monthly titles might actually be in jeopardy in their battles - cancellation makes a good argument for annihilation - there's little chance major players will take a permanent dive. So the threat has to constantly be amped to force even the most meager credibility into the situation, so that we know the hero is the hero because he flies defiantly into the snarling jaws of danger, and we know he'll overcome whatever limitation is put before him because that's what heroes do.

Don't they?

In fiction and life, we tend to hold up men of action as heroes, but that's rarely the truth. Bookish acts can be heroic, too. It was a heroic act to wipe out smallpox, but that was a quiet act, spread over time and thousands of people. Cops, firefighters and soldiers are frequently held up as heroes, but the rules and procedures of their trades, designed to limit risk and keep them alive, frown on heroism. And, while I believe the majority of them to be decent people, we've all heard enough stories of crooked or sadistic cops, firemen exposed as arsonists, and amok soldiers to wonder about the rest of them. Often the difference between heroism and villainy is a matter of perspective. Ask Ollie North or Leonard Peltier. When I was a kid, astronauts were the greatest heroes we knew. To some extent, that was true, as they put themselves in great potential danger, largely to extend our reach and knowledge. But there, too, everything anyone could think of was done to make their lives routine and uneventful. I had an optometrist in Los Angeles who monthly flew to poor villages in Mexico, fitting people there for glasses and performing optic surgery, no charge, with no reward other than gratitude, and even that wasn't necessary. That's a heroic act. Most people who behave with this subtle heroism would never call themselves heroes, and that's part of what makes them heroes. Real world heroism, action mode, is often synonymous with suicidal behavior, and, aside from morticians, no profession wants to be regularly associated with funerals.

As hoary a clich as it is, a soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save fellow soldiers is heroic. Superman catching someone falling from a tall building isn't, or, at least, isn't heroic enough, because Superman is a superhero, and superhero comics are about superheroics. Which aren't heroics. (Face it, 22 pages of Superman rescuing people from accidental danger without some greater unifying threat behind it would probably make for the last Superman comic you'd ever buy.) For Superman (superstrong, superfast, flies, can't be hurt) such an act is so easy, so mundane, that he'd be justly excoriated if he were aware of the situation and didn't do anything. While it's true he doesn't have to get involved, there's no risk or even effort. In order to bring any level of risk into his existence, situations must be specially manufactured for him.

In comics, heroism demands villainy. Each is put into relief and crystallized by the other, a mythic display of light and shadow. In real life, heroism is indifferent to villainy. It's characterized not by conflict with its Manichean opposite (though it certainly can be) but by contrast with everyday behavior.

I once read a definition of genius: to do easily what others find hard is talent. To do what is impossible for talent is genius. Heroism is similar. It's rare. It borders on the miraculous, and if it didn't, we wouldn't make such a fuss about it. It's hard, which is why no one sustains heroic behavior for long. They shouldn't be expected to. There's a heroic impulse in every one of us - even the worst person is capable of heroic behavior, given the right situation - but there are also hundreds of other impulses and motivations, good and bad, as well as obstacles, and it's this combination that defines us a human beings.

"[Heroism] borders on the miraculous, and if it didn't, we wouldn't make such a fuss about it."

The last time I wrote about heroism, a number of people came away thinking I wanted to see heroics in comics done away with completely. That's not true. I like heroics. I like reading about heroic people as much as anyone. What I want to see is a redefinition of heroics, a movement away from the antiquated, rigid, limiting concept we're saddled with. We still need heroes. We don't need characters who define themselves solely in terms of their heroism. I called them "steady state heroes" because that's what they are. They're so forced into the standard "heroic mold" they don't have any time to come across as human beings, which is why human beings have pretty much been forced out of superhero comics altogether.

Another friend of mine, Brad Munson, wrote awhile back to mention that superheroes aren't for kids. They're for simpletons. They cope with a complex world in the simplest possible way. And that's okay. There's vicarious pleasure to be had from it. We all like to be simpletons now and then.

But only simpletons want to be simpletons all the time.

Comics people (including me) aren't the most heroic people in the world, so this obsession with "heroes" gets suspicious. There are cynical reasons for the obsession: "it's what the audience wants." There are vicarious reasons: "I can be heroic through my characters." Laziness or fear may figure into it: "That's how it has always been done, that's how it should always be done." There may even be dramatic reasons, but it's worth noting that there isn't a hero in all of Shakespeare who fits the comics criteria, and those are some of the most enduring heroes in fiction.

Even in fiction, "hero" covers a wider berth than we allow in comics. In John Ford's THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, one of the cinematic meditations on the meaning of heroism, Jimmy Stewart's meek frontier lawyer Rance Stoddard becomes widely renowned by gunning down Lee Marvin's vicious outlaw Liberty Valance, only to learn later that the real hero is rancher John Wayne, who acts quietly and unnoticed, and loses his fiance, home, reputation and entire way of life as a result, ultimately dying unheralded and penniless but knowing that what he did was the right thing to do because it was the right thing to do, regardless of personal consequence. Now that's heroism. The ronin hero of Akira Kurosawa's YOJIMBO (based on Dashiell Hammett's RED HARVEST, and remade as Sergio Leone's FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, and later as Walter Hill's LAST MAN STANDING) walks into a village and decimates the town by triggering a gang war between two criminal factions. But the ronin is inarguably both the hero of the story and a hero, yet he sets off a string of horrible violence. When was the last time you saw that in comics? (Actually, I did it myself in the PUNISHER MINI-SERIES, in 1985, where The Punisher intentionally triggers a mob war, letting criminals do his work for him. Marvel readers had never seen anything like it before. They loved it.) In Roman Polanski's CHINATOWN, Jack Nicholson's peeper detective JJ Gittes goes up against an entire corrupt political infrastructure, embodied by John Huston's smug, ponderous millionaire Noah Cross, and loses. Badly. Gittes's heroic act isn't to defeat evil, but to finally recognize the sheer horrible scope of its power.

All these stories are terrific stories. All these characters are heroic in their own way. They're capable of growth, change, even surviving defeat - comics heroes generally aren't. By limiting what's acceptable as "heroic" to rigid, outmoded forms - an example of the static, unnatural mythic America that crystallized in the 1950s but never really had any meaning and is today just a hindrance: the "steady state" comfort zone where everything is soothing and nothing ever really changes - we eat away at our ability to tell new, dramatic stories. We don't need role models. We need drama. Fast.

Let me reiterate: when some more or less ordinary person does something unexpected, something beneficial beyond their capability or against personal interest but they manage it anyway - or they fail gloriously, or even succeed through failure - that's heroic. That makes them, at least for a moment, a hero. That's something that affects our lives, our view of ourselves. It opens the door to new possibilities. Someone already extraordinary doing something extraordinary, well, that's just not that much of an accomplishment. The message of comics, enforced by the ongoing publication nature of the business, is that "hero" is an automatic response, a state of grace for a chosen few who stand outside mere humanity. If we're going to speak positively on heroism, our message should be that all of us have heroism within us, it's a choice we can make, we don't have to passively watch someone else make it, and failing to make that choice doesn't invalidate that choice in the future. Nor guarantee it. We should be driving home the point that heroism isn't the exclusive province of the hero. It's open to all of us.

OUT FOR BLOOD #4, the finale of the vampire-werewolf-cop mini-series I did with Michael Part and Gary Erskine, should be available today. Holiday things got in the way of finishing the first chapter of the WHISPER novel, but check back next week. My Alleged Fictions website (see below) has been redesigned and streamlined for quicker, easier access, but it glitched my counter settings and we're back to start for the new year, so if you'd drop by to help get the numbers back up to where they should be, I'd appreciate it. The fiction magazine idea I mentioned last week has garnered some interest from unexpected quarters, and I'm trying to set up a deal now. Don't forget to badger your dealer to order LEGENDS OF THE DC UNIVERSE #28 & 29; papa needs a new pair of shoes. And if anyone wants to finance a new comics company, I'll be spelling out my dream game plan in a couple of weeks.

Finally, a question I've been asking privately for months, with no answer. Maybe someone can help me with it. The name of the "&" sign is ampersand. I know that "@" now means "at" in Internet parlance, and in bookkeeping it means "each." But what's the actual name of the sign? No one seems to know…

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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