Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Ideal of the Hero

This is going to be a bit of a shorter post than I tend to do, but its a smaller, more concentrated subject that I at least want to hit in some small way. Before I dive into it, though, I feel the need to mention one thing.

I'm thinking the way I'll be doing the more detailed talks on specific artists, such as the Chris Samnee post from a few days ago, is to try and do them once a week. Possibly more in a week, but I don't want to rush them and would prefer to give the artists I talk about a good run through, so once a week seems a safe aim. Admittedly, any schedules I set for this blog are flexible, but hey, worth mentioning.

So with that out of the way, let me get on with this.

I was listening to the wonderful podcast, Word Balloon, hosted by the amazingly entertaining John Suintres, as he did a very long conversation spread over parts with Martin Pasko, a long-time comics creator who has worked since the 70s and also done quite a large amount of television work through the years. The great part about the interviews with Mr. Pasko is his first-hand experience with a great deal of the goings-on at DC through the 70s, which can shine a light on a very interesting period of time for comics, especially for someone my age that wasn't even born yet.

As the discussion rolled around various subjects, it eventually turned to a subject that has struck me far more than I thought it would. The idea of what our heroes should be. Specifically, Mr. Pasko brought this up in regards to the idea that characters like Superman would never have killed back then, whereas today that kind of action is more acceptable.

Now, I was born in the mid-80s, and I've grown up with entertainment in various forms that have created the idea that killing is just normal for many styles of dramatic fiction. This extends from the general faceless deaths from the likes of Stormtroopers in Star Wars to the deaths of major villains to the deaths of heroes themselves. Its just a normal part of storytelling to me, and in fact something I handle without thinking in my own work. People fight, eventually someone dies, the story moves on.

Before I go further, I want to make one point clear. I don't think any of this means that I'm some warped, horrible human being that doesn't see death as a real thing, or any of those other hilariously bad arguments against video game and entertainment violence. I'm speaking strictly in the form of storytelling, and specifically with how it relates to the idea of a hero.

So, now I dive into that. For a very, very long time in comics, death was a very rare, very serious thing. Uncle Ben's death is why Peter Parker is who he is as Spider-Man, and even moreso after the death of Gwen Stacy. The death of Bruce Wayne's parents shapes his need to fight crime so the same thing doesn't happen to others...and probably out of some twisted sense of revenge, depending on your interpretation of how crazy Bruce Wayne might be. But, on the whole, the heroes themselves didn't kill. Punch? Yes. Kick? Yes. But the use of lethal force was mostly restricted to WW2 era comics.

This changed fairly dramatically, as it did in quite a few forms of entertainment, somewhere in the 70s and 80s and grew from there. For comics, the 80s were a definite era of change on the whole. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen, Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's Daredevil: Born Again, and X-Men's Dark Phoenix Saga from Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum, and John Byrne are just a few examples of ways that comics seriously changed in the 80s. The more upbeat comics of the previous few decades began to give way to grittier, angrier, and more cynical stories that tended to have more strongly portrayed violence than before.

Again, this doesn't make them bad. In fact, those stories are all still some of the best comics has to offer, and those are just super hero books, I'm not even getting into indie stuff from the time. But this gave way to the slow move into the stereotype of 90s comics, with giant guns, ultra-violence, and generally an over-the-top atmosphere that I'd be willing to argue is one of the many reasons the entire comic market nearly collapsed.

But comics survived, as they tend to, even if things are smaller now. Still, we now live in an era where the stories in comics are more grounded and real. There's still a certain hardness to many titles, though the overall feel of a heavy darkness and cynical feel is mostly gone. The heroes aren't necessarily as dark as they were, but on the whole, we definitely don't have a return to some of the lighter, older days. In some ways, this is probably for the better, as comics today are full of absolutely amazing stories and artists doing things that wouldn't be possible anytime before.

And this ideal of a hero sits in my mind and I wonder how that has changed. While we still have characters like Superman, Captain America, Spider-Man, and Batman that vow not to kill, it can and does happen. Sometimes for dramatic purposes, sometimes in the more simplistic idea of the last Captain America carrying a gun. There was nothing wrong with it, what with Bucky carrying the mantle and having fought in the war, he'd definitely use a gun and that's fine, but there's no way he didn't kill a few bad guys with it. Otherwise, why use a gun?

The others, too, have all killed in some form through the years. Partly just due to the nature of an ongoing character over decades and decades. New stories are necessary and death and killing are definitely ripe for drama. And I wouldn't say this diminishes the characters in any way either, if anything it could round them out and make them more multi-faceted when handled by a good writer.

But in general, it seems that the idea of the hero that kills is normal today. Think for a moment about a hero of some kind, they don't even have to have superpowers. Is it greater to solve a dangerous situation by finding a peaceful way to save all lives or are some evils just too evil? We seem to definitely be in the age of the latter, and for obvious reasons. But in some ways, it can be hard to look at the opposite, the hero that never takes a life and never lets someone die, as naive and childish.

Is it?

I don't think it is. I think, at the purest form, a hero is better than the rest of us. That's the point. They stand above the masses and do what everyone else can't. They find a way to make the impossible possible. So in this time where it is fairly widely accepted that some people are just too evil to live, isn't a person that can stand above that and say "No, there is another way." and then find that other way, a true hero above us all?

The ability to forgive, unconditionally is somewhere in most of the major religious beliefs of the world, but usually its above the level of the normal man. Isn't that where a hero is? So instead of it being naive, can't this be a great thing?

Clearly, I think there's something to this idea. I do honestly believe that, especially in times like we live in, the heroes that can defy conventional wisdom and save everyone may be what we need in our fiction and entertainment. At the same time, I don't think this should be everything. There's room for everything, but it seems that today, the truly good hero barely exists anymore. I think its time someone found the right way to bring it back, and while I don't claim to know how, with the current crop of writers and creators amongst comics and the entertainment industry as a whole, someone out there is smart enough.