Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Heroes like Gods

I recently wrote a blog called Myths comparing our modern comic book superheroes to the mythic heroes and gods of various ancient cultures going back to the Greeks and Romans. I was wondering this morning why we have heroes at all, particularly "super" ones? What do we get from heroes that we don't get from the regular people in our lives?

The immediate answer is that people are flawed. I don't know anyone (me included) who isn't screwed up or bent out of shape in one way or another. We all have our biases, perspectives, issues, and angst. We used to look up to celebrities such as actors and politicians, but history tells us that those people, in real life, were just as human as anyone else and had just as many problems as the rest of us...maybe more. It can be a real let down to admire old time heroes of the movies and TV like Roy Rogers or the Lone Ranger, only to find out that these heroes are no different than you and me. Acting is a job, not a calling and Clayton Moore was an actor who played a hero, not the hero himself (and I should mention that both Rogers and Moore were very fine men who I admire greatly...I'm not criticizing them at all).

Admiring politicians is even a worse option. I can't think of any political figure who, admired during their time in office, wasn't subsequently found to have engaged in very human behaviors that at least potentially could have tarnished their reputation. Up until Richard Nixon, the Office of the President of the United States was well respected and the infrastructure around the President works to make sure that any of the more "common" activities of the President never reached the public. Watergate changed all that.

During our last Presidential election, Barack Obama was so admired, his public image verged on Sainthood and Messianic. Even though he remains fabulously popular among his hard-core "fans", the past 16 months of his time in office have shown that, "audacity of hope" or not, he's still just a man.

The answer to why we have fictional heroes then, is that real life people can be a bit of a disappointment. Any time you fix your eyes on a person and decide to use them as a role model, they'll say or do something to knock themselves off the pedestal you've placed them on. Real life heroes may start out well, but like Icarus, they eventually fly too close to the sun, get burned, fall from grace and back to earth. The irony of the Greek and Roman gods (since I'm on the subject more or less) is that they tended to act just as human as anyone else, and even worse than most (and Zeus was a very bad boy...uh, "swan" in his "encounter with the mortal woman Leda).

In the modern age, we have heroes like Superman, a "strange visitor from another planet, who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men!" Of course, in his first appearence in Action Comics #1, he acted more like Batman in some ways. In order to get a corrupt politician to confess to his misdeeds, Superman hung him from the top of a lamp post (I'm writing this part from memory, so if you have a more accurate version of the end of Superman's first adventure, let me know) to "loosen his tongue", so to speak.

In 1938, the "tough guy" good guy was very popular, but eventually, Superman shifted into the classic "nice guy" good guy, almost all-powerful, but equally incorruptable. This version was best portrayed on the silver screen by Christopher Reeve who developed both Clark Kent and Superman as two separate identities. Both were still very good and admirable men (though Clark by necessity, had to be a bit of a coward). The George Reeves Superman of 1950s TV by comparison, though played lightly through most of the series, had his darker moments, such as the time when he dodged a crook coming at him with a knife (this is Superman, remember) so that the crook would trip and fall over a cliff to his death.

The Silver Age Superman was clean cut, pure of heart, and a really nice guy. Just what a bunch of boys around the age of 10 or 12 would want and need for a role model. Be strong, be good, help people, and don't smooch too much with your good looking reporter girlfriend.

It seems we may have come full circle though. Our comic book heroes have become more tarnished of late. Actually, since about the early 1970s. I've mentioned before about the iconic two-part Green Lantern/Green Arrow tale from 1971 titled Snowbirds Don't Fly where it's shown that Green Arrow's former "trusty sidekick" Speedy (Roy Harper) has become a heroin addict. Hardly the role model for impressionable pre-teens.

As I said in my article Reflections, comic books, like any other entertainment medium, are a reflection of the desires and morals of the age that produced them. It's not that people were really "goody-goody" in the 1950s and 60s, but, as a society, we needed our heroes to be that way. Even the "Dark Knight" was so clean cut and sappy that modern audiences would probably puke if they read some of the Batman comics from that time (or watched the 1960s Batman TV series that starred Adam West and Burt Ward).

While "nice guy" heroes are an inspiration, we always fail them because, as real human beings, we can never be perfect. In a sense, both the ancient and modern heroes are easier for real people to relate to because they more or less act like we do, only with super powers. If that's the case though, isn't it a bad thing to have a flawed, corruptable human being be so powerful that bullets bounce off their chest and they can incinerate an entire city with heat vision?

It's not that bad. Our superheroes are heroes because they face their "demons", the dark side of their personalities and struggle to do the right thing. The "Dark Knight" Batman walks the edge of the abyss each night, in danger of becoming that which he fights against, but never actually falls least not for very long. Our heroes are heroes because they are like us, but they struggle and overcome their problems. They're super, because the amplification of abilities makes the struggle larger than life, drawing our attention into that world so that our existence can too seem more nobel and less mundane.

Like the gods of old, our heroes act like we do, but unlike the ancient gods, Superman, Batman, and a score of other superpowered beings do not give in to tempation to become as totally corrupt and self-indulgent as their powers would allow them to be (imagine a completely narcisstic Superman, for instance).

While we, in real life, can never be super, we can use our heroes as an example of what it's like to fight against the odds and win. Like our heroes, we can have set backs and reverses, but we're shown that we don't have to just give up. Like our heroes, there's always another issue and another chapter in which, even after the bitterest defeat, we can rise again, Phoenix-like from the ashes of our failures, and fight another day.

Our spirits, like Superman, can even fly.

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