We Don’t Need Another
Heroism is a tricky thing. It’s difficult to define to the point that it’s almost entirely personal; it’s a thorny enough social concept that we spend endless hours debating what we mean by it in both fiction and reality. Some people don’t like the very idea, finding it too troublesome and too prone to elevate one person above the mass, and spend their time either deconstructing the concept or denying that it can ever be fairly applied to anyone; for these people, sniffing out feet of clay is a full-time occupation. For others, there aren’t enough heroes; so desperately do they reckon we need them that they have extended the franchise even to those who don’t want to be included, making them (usually unwillingly) into ‘role models’ under the assumption that you should be a moral exemplar to children just because you’re good at dunking a basketball.
In real life, heroism is pretty rare — I’d go as far as to say thankfully rare. My own heroes are terribly few, decency and talent being such infrequent bedfellows; I tend to reserve the work for the likes of Martin Luther King, Mohandas Gandhi, and the like, who not only did the incomparable work of helping to free millions from cruelty and oppression, but who did it in a way that is almost literally unimaginable to me. I don’t particularly value non-violence as a practice, which makes it all the more amazing to me that these people did what they did in the way they did it. Other people are so starved for heroes that they will make one of just about anyone — this guy, for example, is Sean Hannity’s new hero du jour (replacing the disgraced Cliven Bundy), even though the manner in which he butchered two teenaged housebreakers is more reminiscent of a serial killer than it is a paragon of justice.
People used to be very much in the habit of making artists into heroes, a practice I find so juvenile and naïve that I can scarcely believe it’s lasted so long, and indeed seems to make a comeback with every young generation, with people who have not yet learned that the qualities that make one a great practitioner of their art are often the same qualities that make one a rather indecent human being. But if we are saddled with the childish habit of thinking of ordinary people blessed with talent as needing to be morally upstanding, perhaps it is because, in what increasingly seems to be a period of cultural decadence, our public taste has become more childish. In what we are condescendingly assured is a golden age of television, the discussion of many of the most critically celebrated shows — Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Hannibal — revolves around moral conceptions so simple-minded that it sometimes sounds shocking coming from the mouths of grown adults. We demand not only representation and sympathy, but relatability, even purity: characters sold to us as deeply flawed suddenly let us down if they prove to be too flawed, as if they were family members who are not just reprobates, but ungrateful about it.
But then, if the minds of critics and fans are confused, who can blame them? In this era of the showrunner, the franchise, and the creator under the knout of a whole legion of recappers and re-hashers, the word of the artist is now the Word of God, reader response theory be damned. So if they insist on a particularly banal and poorly thought-out interpretation of their work, who can blame their followers for taking it to heart? Here, for example, is a comment made during one of the recent depressing contretemps about sexism in the comics industry:
I think that a huge problem is people who read comics and don’t understand the point of superheroes, which is to be the best version of yourself.
That’s comics writer Brian Michael Bendis, ‘explaining’ what the ‘point’ of superheroes is to those who have the bad taste to like them and then behave in a manner Bendis finds unsuitable to the behavior of people who like the same things he likes. This is not to defend the misogynistic and repulsive attitudes he’s attacking, but what’s with this fat-headed lecture? Art is not responsible to the people who like it, and if you wish to call someone out for being a sexist prick, just call them a sexist prick, and spare me the bafflegab propaganda about the correct meaning of things and who you do and don’t want reading your work. Bendis, before he became one of the biggest names in the industry and started believing his own public relations, used to write stories of great moral torment and complexity, and trusted his readers to make a respectable show of understanding them without resorting to this kind of nonsense.
If we’re going to talk about the ‘point’ of superheroes, the discussion is likely to end up on one end of the spectrum (the point is to sell images of over-muscled lunatics roughing it up to arrested adolescents) or the other (the point varies wildly depending on who is writing, what character is being written about, what their intentions are, and how they are delivered. But wherever it ends up, it’s not likely to be within a thousand leagues of “be the best version of yourself”. While superhero stories have always been some variety of power fantasy, they have never been the same one; the common conception of each is miles apart. The version of Superman that dwells in our collective consciousness is in many ways that of a benevolent God, morally worthy and capable of saving us through a combination of divine power and personal inspiration; that of Batman is a stunted boy’s dreams of eternal vengeance; that of Wonder Woman a knotty picture of a woman of great power but, literally and figuratively, bound and restrained by the expectations of others. Spider-Man tells us the painful lesson of a child being forced to deal with the responsibilities of becoming an adult. The Fantastic Four is about how staying together as a family can mean condemning the people you love to mutual agony. None of these stories, at their core, are about being “the best version of yourself”; we cannot be Superman, we should not be Batman, and we wouldn’t want to be the Fantastic Four.
Honestly, this sort of low-grade silliness is beneath even comics; it exhausts me. Is the Punisher the best version of anyone’s self? (Maybe Byron Smith.) Who is the Hulk the best version of? What happened to comic book heroes being our own versions of myth — that is to say, of flawed gods, all too human in nature, often jealous and petty and wrong, amongst whose vast power and moral struggles we mere mortals must navigate? When did we switch to a conception of them as our own versions of Jesus, without moral stain and forever held up as our example to always do good? That’s not why I started reading comics, and I can’t think of a single superhero story I’ve really liked in which that was the way they were presented. Nerd-culture icons often balk at having their media categorized as children’s stories, but this isn’t the talk of a serious writer interested in presenting a convincing adult story, in creating narratives in which more than one reader can find more than one answer, in exploring the differences between valor and courage. It’s the talk of someone using their art as a blunt instrument to make himself feel better about his own upstanding self by reducing the complexity of fiction to an on-off switch. That’s not the direction our art needs to be heading right now.